The two of them are among the stars of a National Geographic special called "Virus Hunters," which will premier this Sunday at 9:00. I've had a chance to watch an early cut, and I'll tell you, this is one of the scariest but also one of the most inspiring pieces of television journalism that I've seen about the pandemic and the issues that we all need to think about.
I should mention that the special that will be on television Sunday is part--linked to November issue of National Geographic, which is all about the COVID-19 pandemic and what it's meant in America and around the world. Again, the articles are powerful, carefully researched, and quite moving. So, you'll want to look at that, as well.
I want to start with Dr. Golden and ask you to tell us a little bit about the kind of research you do as a virus hunter. We see you in the field in some situations that, as I mentioned, are sometimes terrifying. But tell us what the purpose of this research is. You say you're looking for next pandemic, the next COVID-19 or Ebola. How do you do that?
DR. GOLDEN: That was absolutely the focus of this documentary, was to really highlight the frontline researchers like Kendra, like Jim Desmond, and others who are really at the frontlines, trying to characterize novel pathogens, viruses, bacteria, that are found within wildlife populations and could potentially spill over into human populations.
My own research is kind of not immediately on infectious disease itself, but really trying to understand the human health impacts of environmental change, and really trying to characterize the environmental, social, and cultural factors that drive people to kind of interface more and more with wild habitats or with domesticated animals and present a danger for disease emergence.
MR. IGNATIUS: So, describe for our viewers what they'll see in the documentary Sunday night. You get into vehicles in the field and you go places where you're going to encounter viruses in the process of transmission and spread that could end up threatening all of us. Just tell us about a day in the life of Chris Golden and Kendra Phelps.
DR. GOLDEN: You know, this documentary focuses on three major locations over the course of the episode. And so, we travel to Turkey; we travel to Liberia; and then, we travel to the U.S. Midwest. And each one of those is chosen very specifically to highlight this kind of overall story of how what we're doing to the planet, the way in which we are driving environmental changes, whether it is deforestation, mining, climate change, agricultural expansion--how all of these factors are leading us to become closer and closer contact with wild ecosystems and wild animals and domesticated animals.
And so, the first scene is really set taking us to Liberia, looking at the work of Jim Desmond, the Eco Health Alliance, and many others who are really trying to characterize the viruses and pathogens found within bat colonies and rodent populations in the northern part of the country. And this is the exact area where Ebola virus was found and one of the countries that was majorly hit by Ebola. And so, we're trying to go there to really understand what has happened in the past, how did people respond to pandemics historically, and what are the ways that we could actually use monitoring, surveillance, and tracking of wildlife diseases to help prevent the next pandemic.
And then, we head to Turkey and look at Kendra's work, and it's a very similar situation where we are looking at characterizing these novel viruses and pathogens within a bat population.
MR. IGNATIUS: So, Dr. Phelps, tell us a little bit about what we see in the documentary. You're in Turkey looking for the origins of MERS, the Middle East Syndrome virus, or some future version of it, and we see you with something I've never heard of before called a harp trap.
Tell us what a harp trap is and a little bit about your research with bats.
DR. PHELPS: Well, I think the documentary, as Dr. Golden mentioned, really highlights the--what I like to call boots-on-the-ground surveillance. So, what does it take to get out in the field and, when you're working with bats, that means working at night, getting bit by mosquitoes, not being able to see much more than, you know, a few feet in front of you, just based on what your headlamp can reach.
So, working with bats and these proactive disease monitoring programs has been really interesting and definitely something--even though I've worked on bats for almost 20 years, it's kind of a new area of research that I have been expanding into over for the last three years.
Now, we typically use harp traps to catch bats. And harp traps, the name comes from the fact that there are four banks or four rows of basically fishing line. So, it's very thin, fine line that's clear. And the bats don't see it when they first emerge from--in Turkey, we were at a cave. So, there--you know, they're not expecting us to be there. So, they're going about their typical flight pattern and they don't see the nearly invisible fishing lines of the harp trap. So, they run into them and slide slowly down the strings into a catchment bag at the bottom and we retrieve them from that bag, which you'll see in the episode.
MR. IGNATIUS: And Dr. Phelps, what is it about bats that makes them such extraordinary carriers of these viruses that leap species? We learn in the documentary about the origins of AIDS, of Ebola, of all of these different diseases that seem to have a connection with bats. Explain why bats end up being a host or transmitter.
DR. PHELPS: Well, bats have several unique characteristics about them that make them ideal disease reservoirs. So, there's a very high diversity of bats. There are 1,000--over 1,400 species of bats found on all continents except for Antarctica. They have the ability to fly, which they're the only flying mammal, and they often tend to roost in large aggregations. And some species don't mind sharing spaces with humans.
So, some of those characteristics make them unique disease reservoirs, not to mention the unique immune system that we're learning about that bats actually have that help them tolerate or even resist infection with some of these viruses that, when they reach human populations, have devastating effects.
So, bats have a lot of unique characteristics that can make them ideal disease reservoirs. But at the same time, these viruses have evolved for thousands of years with their bat host. It's only when we come in contact with bats that we put ourselves at risk of being exposed to these viruses, because we haven't been exposed or evolved with the viruses. So, our immune system is naïve to them.
MR. IGNATIUS: We'll see some remarkable footage of bats in a minute. But first, I want to ask Dr. Golden to talk about some other key transmission points that we see in this documentary.
One scene that's quite haunting takes place in a bushmeat market in Africa where people are displaying smoked monkey meat and other wild animal meats. Describe that scene for us and why you as a researcher found this important. What you're on the track of when you're making these visits?
DR. GOLDEN: You know, this was a very surprising thing for me to see, even as someone who has worked in the field of kind of wildlife hunting and bushmeat research for over 20 years, now. And I've been working in Madagascar where much of the hunting that takes place there is really designed to be supporting food security, really alleviating poverty. It's a food that people fall back on. There isn't much of a luxury demand for wildlife as food in Madagascar. But in Liberia and parts of West Africa, in many parts of Southeast Asia, bushmeat or any wildlife that's hunted for food is really in demand within luxury urban markets.
And so, people are actually heading there. They're even willing to pay a premium price for certain types of wildlife species. So, we head into this market and there are probably 40 to 50 female sellers, all selling different types of species that are prepared in different ways. None of them were live: they were all either butchered fresh meat or smoked or dried meat. And so, there were deer species, porcupines, cane rats, primate species, colobus monkeys and things like that. And it was fascinating for me to be there, because I had never seen anything like this or at that scale.
From a disease exposure standpoint, this is something that people kind of have in their head is a major risk for disease exposure. So, we hear about wet markets, and this is something that is quite different than the bushmeat market that we went to. Wet markets do have the potential for serving as a viral spillover interface where you have live animals that are potentially ill, carrying diseases and spreading them to one another and allowing for cross-species transmission that could even go into humans.
In these bushmeat markets that I was seeing in West Africa, that's not really the case. These animals are dead and, after they're cooked, really it eliminates any sort of potential risk. And this is not me kind of promoting it as something to do, but in terms of an actual spillover event, this is something that is relatively low on the kind of risk profile.
However, these markets do serve as a major incentive for hunters to kind of flood the forest, feed the market. And so, it's really the economic demand that is created by the markets that drives hunters to then face these exposure risks. The hunting, butchering, and transportation of dead and dying animals is really where you'll get that blood, saliva/human skin interface that could lead to a spillover event.
MR. IGNATIUS: And Dr. Golden, lest this sound to our viewers like it's far away in Africa, you take us to a bushmeat site in Wisconsin, where issues of similar health risks take place with the hunting of deer, which have a chronic disease that could threaten human beings. Tell us about that very different bushmeat experience.
DR. GOLDEN: Sure, so, almost tongue-in-cheek in the documentary, I refer to this as American bushmeat. I think that bushmeat is probably a bit of a dated term, but really, any wildlife that's hunted for food is something that could be considered bushmeat. And so, all of the deer hunting that's happening across America is really a form of bushmeat consumption.
And in Wisconsin, I think that they estimate that roughly 400,000 deer are killed annually for food. And even with the hunter that we talk with, he said that he catches about 60 a year; they average around 50 pounds of meat after everything has been removed, like the bone, skin, entrails, et cetera. So, that's around 300 pounds of meat for his family, or roughly a pound of meat per day for his family. So, this is something that's really serving kind of a critical part of food ecosystems in different parts of our country.
And I think it's really interesting to think of it in that way, because it really mirrors my own experience of doing research in Madagascar.
The disease that we were looking at in Wisconsin is called chronic wasting disease. This is a prion disease, which really is just a mutated protein that can severely damage wildlife populations, particularly deer in this area. It is not something that I would consider to be a high risk for a spillover event into humans, but of course, there are always things we need to watch. Prion diseases are incredibly serious. They are roughly 100 percent fatal within deer populations and they are not totally dissimilar from something like Alzheimer's disease which has devastating impacts on the human brain.
MR. IGNATIUS: Now might be a good time for us to look at a clip from the National Geographic special that will be broadcast Sunday night, which shows you both talking about the shedding of virus by bats and takes us to a larger point about the interface between species like bats and human beings and what pushes dangerous intersections.
Let's take a look at the clip.
MR. IGNATIUS: So, Dr. Phelps, you said at the end of that clip, "Healthy bats, healthy environment, healthy people. We're all interconnected." That's a keeper for me.
Talk more about that chain of connection and the way in which the disruption of animal life as our planet changes, presents new risks--not simply for the animals, but for us. Just talk us through that chain of interconnection.
DR. PHELPS: Yes, so, what I was referring to when I was talking about healthy wildlife, healthy environments equal healthy human populations is referred to as "one health." So, it's the realization that we're all interconnected. If one of those three are out of whack, then they're all going to be affected. And that's why we're seeing pandemics increasing at a greater rate, is because human populations are degrading environmental habitats, which Dr. Golden mentioned earlier. You know, cutting down forests, deforestation, and then the trade and consumption of wildlife puts us in greater contact with animals, and in particular, animals that are sick or stressed from being exposed to human encroachment into their wild habitats. So, that's kind of the meaning behind all of that, is that we need to think about how we treat the environment and how that affects both wildlife populations and then, ultimately, the health of the human population. So, we can't ignore the other two and expect to be pandemic-free and live healthy lives. We don't live in a hermetic bubble, but instead we have to think about how we're all interconnected and protect all of those pathways in those three different elements if we want to prevent future pandemics and live in a better world, honestly.
Because a lot of this is also related to the mass loss of biodiversity and is drivers of climate change, as well. So, taking care of the environment and the wildlife has massive benefits for human health.
MR. IGNATIUS: So, that's powerfully said. And Dr. Golden, I have tremendous admiration, after watching this documentary, for you virus hunters. But I want to ask a slightly skeptical question, if I might.
One of the theories about how COVID-19 emerged centers around what happened in Wuhan, where you had two biological labs, in theory, high security, and you had researchers, virus hunters in China were going out to bat caves and bringing back samples of virus to study and help China prepare for the next deadly outbreak. And one theory is that there may have been some kind of accidental release of the virus from one of these two labs in Wuhan, which just makes me wonder a little bit about the dangers of this process of collection and research. I'm sure you think about this all the time, but walk us through that issue about whether and if the process of study can unintentionally expose us to great danger.
DR. GOLDEN: David, I think that's a great question and I think that, absolutely, we need to maintain the highest precautions in all of our laboratory standards and protocols.
This is the type of work that I don't really do or focus on. But having been kind of certified for all sorts of levels of biosecurity labs, I can tell you that the way we handle this at a place like Harvard University or other locations is there are really strict protocols in place to make sure that we are maintaining the safety and health of everyone that is within the lab and, by all accounts, really trying to maintain public health.
And so, those types of incidences, although plausible should really be reduced and have minimized risk, given the protocols we have in place.
If we look historically at what the major kind of transmission events have been, what major diseases have been of this sort, we have things like HIV, SARS, MERS, Ebola, swine flu. All of these things occurred because of unfolding patterns of increasing environmental change. And so, if you think about deforestation, mining, agricultural expansion, all of these things are really reshaping the surface of the earth and leading to increasing risks of disease emergence.
And so, if I had to make a bet, I would say that the likelihood that the next pandemic would come from a laboratory or from everyday behaviors that we are participating in as a global community, I would definitely bet on the latter.
MR. IGNATIUS: That's helpful. So, Dr. Phelps, I'm sure viewers are wondering, what do we do about this? What are the steps that we as individuals, but really our governments, our planet can do to reduce the dangers that you and Dr. Golden have talked about? Give us two or three things that would be on your list of "must do."
DR. PHELPS: Well, I think we need to really consider how we interact with the environment and we want to minimize any type of negative interaction or purchasing products that have negative effects on the environment.
There has been discussion even of potentially taxing meat consumption, particularly beef, because--although I don't want the beef industry on my case, I'm just saying that's one proposed idea of squashing any future pandemics is thinking about how we interact with the environment, how our purchases and our decisions on where we donate money. Donate money to habitat conservation or restoration. If we can protect wild areas and keep animals, wildlife, from being in contact with humans, that's the best idea.
So, I guess it really comes back to, you know, having a broad knowledge of where you're buying your products, what impact that could potentially have on the environment, and try to minimize that impact as much as possible. And obviously, don't consume wildlife species, would be my last suggestion.
And one thing I wanted to add, you know, Virus Hunters does talk about wildlife or game hunting here in the United States, but here in New York City, where I live, there are 80 live animal markets that not only sell domesticated species, but they're also selling some exotic species, and this is legal under the New York State law. So, it isn't just tropical areas; it can be here, right in New York City, where you could be exposed to a unique pathogen from a wild animal that was transported all the way from another continent.
So, it--you know, thinking about those types of purchases. Don't support that--types of businesses.
MR. IGNATIUS: And Dr. Golden, one other practical issue that I'm sure viewers will think about, there's a memorable scene at a hog facility in the United States where you're, among other things, taking nose swabs of little pigs that are, I assume, on their way eventually to market, to see if they may have some viral disease. We remember swine flu emerged from pigs. And the implication of that scene is that industrialized agriculture, that growing food plentifully, cheaply, with animals packed together in cages or other conditions may unintentionally be a disease generator. Could you just talk briefly about that problem?
DR. GOLDEN: Sure. I think that this kind of ties back to when Kendra was talking about viral shedding. The entire idea of viral shedding is that animals that are stressed are more likely to replicate and propagate viruses within their own bodies, and then that increases the risk of spillover.
So, whether this is forest fires, deforestation, and mining leading to stress in wildlife; or it is the conditions by which factory farming and industrial agriculture house animals and lead to stress that could then cause viral shedding, those are both really equivalent processes and could lead to those types of events occurring. What we have in the U.S. is better monitoring and surveillance system for domesticated animal diseases in comparison to many other parts of the world, but there are always areas of improvement. And so, I would definitely identify that as a risk globally.
I think that when you ask Kendra about the two things that we can think of in terms of how we can act as a society that could help to alleviate some of this risk, both the domesticated animals and wildlife hunting are really tied to our overall global food system. And so, identifying ways in which we can mitigate some of these disease risks or food safety risks within our global food system is really a critical area of research, but also for human action and activism. And so, we really need to be thinking about how to be more conscious about our diets.
And then, on the opposite end of kind of what can policy do, who we have in leadership is really critically important to the types of environmental policy that we're making, to the ways in which we can respond to pandemics if and when they should occur.
And so, something like voting next week is also a really important action to take into consideration if you really want to care about stopping the next pandemic.
MR. IGNATIUS: All right. So, we have just a minute left, and I want to take a question from our audience that's specific to COVID-19.
This is from Linda Leong from Colorado, and she asks--I'll put this to Dr. Phelps, "What happens if COVID-19 mutates? Does this mean it could be a threat for years to come?"
DR. PHELPS: Well, that's a really good question. And I'm not a human epidemiologist, so I am not studying COVID-19 pathogenicity and how viral strains may be mutating. It is a possibility, but in my personal opinion, I'll put it that way, I don't feel like there's going to be significant mutations in the sense that we will have to start from ground zero to figure out how to develop therapeutics or vaccines.
So, it may be something similar to the flu vaccinee that we get annually--and I encourage everybody to get that vaccine this year--that when we do have a COVID-19 vaccine, that it may be something that we have to--we're still learning a lot about the vaccine. It hasn't even been made available to the public, but it could potentially be where our antibodies from the vaccination wane over time enough that we need to get annual vaccinations, but there could be significant shifts in the strain of COVID-19 that we have to slightly make modifications each year for the vaccine to be most effective.
But I don't believe that there are going to be significant mutations that lead to a whole different virus and a whole different pandemic.
MR. IGNATIUS: So, I feel we could continue this conversation for a while longer, but I'm going to direct viewers to their television sets Sunday night at 9:00 Eastern when they can watch this fascinating documentary, "Virus Hunters."
I want to thank Dr. Golden and Dr. Phelps for being our guests today on Washington Post Live. Thank you, both.
DR. GOLDEN: Thank you so much, David.
DR. PHELPS: Thank you.
MR. IGNATIUS: So, thank you for joining us. We'll be back with Washington Post Live next week. Gosh, there's an event coming up next week that we're going to want to focus on. And we'll have a great lineup of newsmakers to help you think through the election and all the issues.
We'll have Governor Larry Hogan of Maryland; Representative Pramila Jayapal; Senator Todd Young; and many others. We hope you'll be with us.
Thanks again, I'm David Ignatius from The Post, and we'll see you next week.
[End of recorded session.]