Since 2009, American scientists have discovered more than 900 new viruses. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the US government is increasing efforts to send virus hunters to global hotspots to TRY AND find the next deadly virus before it finds us. Bill Whitaker joined a team from 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 question of if, but of when. That’s why we’re so determined to prepare.”
Johnson has led the UC Davis team and hunted viruses around the world for decades. Viruses capable of jumping from wild animals to humans are of most concern, as COVID-19 likely did. This is called overflow. Disease sleuths warn the threat of spread has never been higher as urban populations rise and come into contact with wild animals – and their viruses – for the first time.
Whitaker accompanied the UC Davis team and their Ugandan partners as they headed to an abandoned mine shaft to search for bats. Johnson said bats are prime suspects for the overflow. They harbor more viruses that kill humans than any other mammal. New species of bats and new viruses are still being discovered.
They are also known to carry coronaviruses – the same family of viruses that spawned COVID-19 – as well as deadly ebola viruses.
So Whitaker and company had to dress head to toe in protective gear. After donning the hazmat suit, they added two sets of gloves, a mask, and a face shield to protect against flying guano and other toxins.
The impenetrable forest was soon dark and we had only the light of our headlamps to guide us. Soon they had trapped a large Egyptian fruit bat. Ugandan wildlife vet Benard Ssebide carefully untangled it and put it in a cloth bag. We followed him to the makeshift lab, glowing in the dark.
Up close, the bats have done little to dispel their fearsome reputation. Whitaker and his crew watched as the fruit bat scurried about, trying to escape. Scientists held his nose to a test tube filled with a mild anesthetic. Eventually, the bat succumbed. Johnson said the bat would be dabbed for a virus sequel.
“It doesn’t hurt the bat,” Johnson said. “We’re getting the right swab size to just do an oral sample. That might be a little uncomfortable.”
The bat’s wings were examined for parasites and ticks which could also have pathogens. All samples would be sent to a lab for DNA sequencing. Johnson said a virus’s genetic code can help identify which one could pass to humans.
Once the tests were done, the bats were released, groggy but unharmed.