Via Gizmodo Australia: Meet The World's Top Virus Hunter. Excerpt:
Ian Lipkin, world-renowned virus hunter, is often jetting off to far-flung countries — countries in the middle of strange epidemics, that is. From SARS in China to MERS in Saudi Arabia, his lab has discovered or characterised over 500 viruses previously mysterious to humans.
But what’s it like working on the frontlines of an epidemic? How do you identify a virus you can’t even see? Gizmodo got in touch with Lipkin to ask some questions about the life of a virus hunter.
To hear Lipkin talk about his research is to hear, essentially, a list of major viral diseases: HIV, West Nile, SARS and so on. But let’s start with one: MERS, or Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, the mysterious pneumonia-like illness that broke out in Saudi Arabia in 2012 and has since claimed 79 lives. Last week, his lab at Columbia University co-published a paper in mBio with further evidence that camels are involved in the spread of MERS.
Camels and Overnight Flights: Studying MERS in Saudi Arabia
Understandably, it’s difficult to bring dangerous mystery viruses into the US, so Lipkin brought his lab to Saudi Arabia.
He and his colleagues devised a mobile lab that fit into exactly six pieces of checked luggage (two for each three team members going) and shipped only one item, a robot used for DNA and RNA samples. Then they set up shop — “like any old biology lab as long as you have running water and electricity,” says Lipkin.
With this new mobile lab, Lipkin’s team can quickly set up anywhere in the world. Not everything was perfect in it the first outing, though. One machine broke, and the fastest way to get it replaced was to fly a researcher all the way back to New York. “We met him at JFK with a replacement piece of equipment. He had a bagel with lox and a black and white cookie and then flew back to Riyadh,” says Lipkin.
The study looked for sequences matching the MERS virus in Saudi Arabia’s one-humped camels and found it to be ubiquitous, even in samples collected as far back as 1992. The genetic sequences found in camels also matched that of infected humans.
There may be other animals involved in the transmission of MERS too, but this is pretty compelling evidence that camels, which are used for milk, meat, and racing in the Middle East, play a role.