This interview was originally broadcast on Oct. 11, 2011. The Viral Storm will be published in paperback on Oct. 16.
The New Yorker once called virologist Nathan Wolfe "the world's most prominent virus hunter." Wolfe, the director of the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative, spends his days tracking emerging infectious diseases before they turn into deadly pandemics.
In The Viral Storm, Wolfe describes how most of those emerging infectious diseases originally start out in animals before making the jump to us.
"Almost all of them start from an animal virus, an animal microbe that jumps over to humans," says Wolfe. "That's actually the same with most of the major diseases of humanity. These things actually start with animals."
In Central Africa, where Wolfe has worked for over a decade, hundreds of thousands people still hunt and consume tropical wild game, called bush meat. The practice has allowed viruses like HIV to leap from wild animals to humans — and then spread rapidly across populations.
Wolfe and his colleagues in the region stress the health hazards of bush meat. But he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that it's difficult to change hunters' behavior without providing alternative sources of protein.
"We're actively working to come up with animal protein solutions," he says. "There are organizations around the world that we're in active discussions with on ways we can introduce novel sources of animal protein that will allow people to have different sources protein so they're not forced to hunt animal game. But most of our mission is to understand what's crossing over [from animals to humans] and to catch it early."
Wolfe regularly receives dried blood samples from animals and hunters in the region. The blood spots are taken to a lab, where they provide a quick map of the viruses that are in each region that can potentially to jump to humans.
"We see new things all the time," he says. "We see new retroviruses out there — which is the category that HIV falls into — and we're very, very concerned because this is the part of the world where HIV jumped from chimpanzees to humans. There's no reason why other viruses in that same class won't have the capacity to leap to humans ... We've found new species of malaria ... and we're really starting to burn through this massive collection of blood spots to determine just what's out there."