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We sat down with noted biologist and virus hunter Nathan Wolfe, PhD, recently in Fort Lauderdale, FL shortly before he delivered the closing keynote at the 40th annual conference of the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology (APIC).
We asked Wolfe about his field work and his recently published book, The Viral Storm, in which he predicts that we will see more and more pandemics and emerging infectious diseases. In light of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV), we asked him this question:
The original SARS coronavirus that emerged in 2002-2003 seemed to have a lot of the classic pandemic characteristics. Why did it vanish in a relatively short period of time and why hasn’t it come back?
Wolfe: “Well, I do think that our public health system responded in a fairly strong way to SARS. But also probably there was some good luck. Some people have postulated that the timing of the outbreak relative to seasonal fluctuations in respiratory virus season [worked in our favor]. We don’t fully understand why it is — it probably has to do with the density of human populations in the Northern Hemisphere in relation to the seasons — but there really are these seasonal effects. The Northern Hemisphere’s winter is when you see really the most important respiratory virus season in the world. You get a little bit in the Southern Hemisphere during their winter, but there is some postulation that SARS ‘second peak’ was at the wrong time. It was the end of the respiratory virus season. Some folks argue that had it come along a little bit earlier we might still be living with the virus.
The second question is how come it hasn’t reared its head again. The way that we think about these things is that there is this constant process by which these viruses are ‘pinging’ at human populations from the animal reservoirs that they come from. The events that we see are an incredibly small percentage of the events that are occurring. So it may very well be that there has been zoonotic transmission of SARS from animals to humans, but until we are really doing the right kind of surveillance we might be missing them.”