On the lookout for viruses that could spark another pandemic – 60 Minutes

Since 2009, American scientists have discovered more than 900 new viruses. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the US government is doubling down on sending virus hunters to global hotspots to TRY AND find the next deadly virus before it finds us. Bill Whitaker joined a team from the University of California Davis and their Ugandan partners in the rugged Impenetrable Forest in search of Pathogen X for a report this week on 60 Minutes.

“I would say another pandemic is guaranteed,” wildlife epidemiologist Christine Johnson told Whitaker. “Johnson: It’s not a matter of if, but when. That’s why we’re so committed to preparation.”

Johnson leads the UC Davis team and has been hunting viruses around the world for decades. A major concern is viruses that are capable of jumping from wild animals to humans, as COVID-19 likely did. It’s called spillover. Disease detectives warn that the risk of spread has never been higher as urban populations grow and come into contact with wild animals – and their viruses – for the first time.

Whitaker joined the UC Davis team and their Ugandan colleagues as they headed to an abandoned mine to look for bats. Johnson said bats are a prime suspect for dispersal. They carry more viruses deadly to humans than any other mammal. New bat species—and new viruses—continue to be discovered.

They are also known to carry coronaviruses—the same family of viruses that spawned COVID-19—as well as deadly Ebola viruses.

So Whittaker and company had to be clad head to toe in protective gear. Once in hazmat gear, they added two sets of gloves, a mask and a face shield to protect themselves from flying guano and other toxins.

The Impenetrable Forest soon turned pitch black and we only had the light from our headlamps to guide us. Soon, they trapped a large Egyptian fruit bat. Ugandan wildlife vet Benard Ssebide gently untangled it and put it in a cloth sack. We followed him back into the makeshift lab, glowing in the dark.

Up close, the bats did little to dispel their fearsome reputation. Whittaker and his crew watched as the fruit bat became agitated, trying to escape. The scientists held his nose in a test tube filled with a mild anesthetic. Finally, the bat succumbed. Johnson said the bat will be swabbed for a range of viruses.

“It doesn’t hurt the bat,” Johnson said. “We get the right size swab so we just do a sample from the mouth. It can be a little uncomfortable.”

The bat’s wings were examined for parasites and ticks that may also have pathogens. All samples will be sent to a laboratory for DNA sequencing. Johnson said that a virus’s genetic code can help identify who can pass it to humans.

After the tests were done, the bats were set free, noisy but unharmed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *