These scientists saw the coronavirus coming. Now they’re trying to stop the next pandemic before it starts.
It was late one night in January 2009, and Jonathan Epstein was standing on the roof of an abandoned storage depot near Khulna, Bangladesh, with the writer and journalist David Quammen along with a small team of veterinarians. The group was in Bangladesh on a strange errand: They were catching bats.
It had been more than a decade since the first outbreak of the Nipah virus in Malaysia. Nipah, named after the home village of one of its earliest victims, causes respiratory distress, inflammation of the brain, and seizures. Its mortality rate is staggeringly high — between 40 and 75 percent of those who contract the disease ultimately die. (The virus depicted in the now all-too-prescient 2011 film Contagion was based on Nipah.)
In Malaysia, the initial outbreak of Nipah in 1998 had infected 283 people and killed 109. Scientists eventually discovered that the virus had been passed from bats to local pig farms; the government slaughtered over 1 million pigs in an effort to stop the spread. But Nipah kept coming back, popping up in new places around the world, killing hundreds. Epstein and his colleagues were in that storage depot in Bangladesh trying to understand if the bats there were also carriers of the virus — and if they might pass it to humans again.
Epstein, a veterinarian and disease ecologist at the nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance in New York City, has been all over the world identifying and tracing viruses that could make a deadly jump from animals to humans, helped by sprawling cities, clear-cut forests, and other human encroachment into the natural world. He helped trace the first outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, in 2003 to horseshoe bats in China; the outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS, in 2013 to camels and bats; and — when it’s safe to travel again — he will return to China to help pinpoint the source of the current coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. Bats are, once again, the main suspects…
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