Conversations with Chris Golden: Hunting viruses to stop the next pandemic

There’s nothing more heroic or appropriate these days than someone who travels the world chasing new, potentially deadly, viruses. At first glance, its something straight out of the sci-fi universe.

Things is, virus hunters do exist.

Chris Golden, a National Geographic Fellow, is one of them. He set aside some time to discuss the NatGeo special, Virus Hunters, his role in the film, emerging diseases, and the role of bushmeat in the emergence of future pandemics.

You’re an ecologist and an epidemiologist. Can you discuss the crossover between the two fields, and how it helps in your assessment of emerging diseases?

The vast majority of my training was always on ecology environmental science and conservation biology. In doing this research, I had always been interested in how trends in ecological change and environmental transformations were impacting human health. I think that it’s really helpful to have these two types of disciplines paired together because they really shed light on how everything is interconnected and can’t be separated. What is happening to the natural world and what is happening to human health and well being — the kind of deep down underlying risk factors that are driving ill health in the world — are intimately tied to the way in which we take care of the natural world.

Even though the consensus tends to be that the market. Wasn’t the original source of the source code. It’s the fact still remains a bushmeat plays a role in zoonotic diseases, right. Can you first discuss the role of bushmeat in making in viruses making the jump?

There is a general kind of confusion and misunderstanding with regard to the nuances and the ways in which people and wildlife have interfaces and what is risky behaviors when it comes to that type of contact. 

The actual consumption of bushmeat isn’t really not where the risk factor is. A dead animal that has been smoked poses very little threat of viral spillover. Where the threat actually exists is in the hunting, butchering and transporting process by wildlife hunters. So something like a market for bushmeat isn’t necessarily in and of itself, a threat. But it is the economic demand that is created by that bushmeat market that causes hunters to flood the forest. Wet markets are a bit of a different example. When you have live animals, there is potentially cross species connection and contamination that exists where viruses and other types of disease can actually spill over from one species type to another.

CREDIT: National Geographic/Carsten Peter.

If you were to make a comparison between the threat from bushmeat and the potential threat from diseases that comes from factory farming, how would they stack up?

Both production systems pose a threat to human health. Both of these are critical in providing food security and nutrition to different populations around the world. Millions, if not hundreds of millions of people, rely on wildlife for food around the world, particularly South America, Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. Factory farming obviously produces food for much of the global north and also for many places around the world. So each serves a role, providing food, and yet they pose risks toward disease transmission and the potential spread of novel viruses. 

When you ask me to compare them it’s a bit difficult to do. There are certain types of species that are more or less likely to transmit disease to humans, for example primates and bats. But there are also a lot of examples of poultry-based viruses that have crossed the species boundary, entered into human populations, and have caused relatively devastating impacts. As a result, it’s difficult to compare the two. Neither are good. 

Okay, still sticking with meat for a second. On the surface, it seems like an easily solvable problem, at least to Western viewers. Just have people stop eating bushmeat. But in reality it’s a lot more complicated than that isn’t it, there are cultural aspects. And you touch on their economic aspects on the supply side and demand side. A lot of time, people eat it out of necessity out of poverty. Sometimes it’s what’s most accessible. So how do you start to approach this problem?

That is a really great question, and in different places, there will be different answers and different solutions. Understanding the motivating factors that are bringing people to eat wildlife in the first place is really critical. In a place like Madagascar where I work, the vast majority of hunting is really driven by poverty and food insecurity. It is a nutritional need where there aren’t many affordable substitutes. Traditional forms of development — subsistence farming, livestock production, poultry farming — these are all important answers to help wean people away from wildlife as a food source in areas like Western Central Africa, or in Southeast Asia. 

There are combinations where bushmeat consumption is poverty-driven but also really driven by a luxury market. It is driven by economic demand. And in those cases, I think that it is better to have really strict enforcement that outlaws the hunting and consumption of wildlife because it’s not serving any sort of basic need. I think that you need different types of policy approaches in different places to really address the underlying drivers that are causing people to eat bushmeat in the first place.

Chris Golden (CREDIT: Jon Betz)

One of the major themes in virus hunters is the interconnectedness of the modern world and the increasing frequency of human wildlife interactions. Can you address that?

Think of all of the ways in which we are changing the world around us. There is deforestation, mining, freshwater scarcity, and agricultural expansion. All of these different environmental processes are unfolding around the world and really reshaping the surface of the earth. 

In conjunction with that, we have human population growth rates where people are needing more and more food to feed themselves. These two trajectories are really driving an increased encroachment on natural and wild habitats, increased interaction with people, and between wildlife and domesticated animals. 

So you’re going to see an increasing incidence of human wildlife interaction, and the potential for viral spillover events from animals to humans. If you look at the numbers now, roughly 70% of all emerging infectious diseases globally are zoonotic in nature, meaning that they’ve come from animals, and have been transmitted to humans.

With something as basic as roads playing a major role in the spread of disease. What can be done to limit the possibilities of disease transmission? In the end, the world is connected now and it’s just going to get more connected.

This is exactly why we get a multi pronged approach. We know that they’re not going to ever stop. Having efforts in place and really planning ahead of time to understand how we can respond to these types of events can help. We know that that’s going to happen. We also need to minimize risks of exposure. We’re not saying stop building roads, stop creating infrastructure, stop extracting natural resources. Just do it in such a way that is more responsible and really think through not only what the environmental impacts are but what the impacts are in environmental damage that could then lead to human health impacts. There has been quite a bit of research on this, that really links ecosystem change to human health outcomes. 

Now, turning to your experiences working on this film, you met with a lot of people, you went to a lot of places and saw a lot of things. Is there anything that really sticks out to you?

There’s so many things. I think that the most unique experience for me I’m not even sure if its feature different, they’ll be me was meeting with a family of Syrian refugees in the southern border of Turkey. What really struck me was how all of this is truly interconnected in very interesting ways. 

You have climate change in the region that drove Syrian farmers and other people from rural areas, into urban areas. This flooded urban areas and caused civil unrest and civil unrest caused a lot of damage that we’re well aware of in Syria that then led to a refugee crisis, and they’re flooding the borders of surrounding nations. All of these things are not only impacting humans, they’re also impacting the wildlife. So all of the animals that are now stressed from climate change as well, are able to potentially impact the disease transmission cycles people were living in, in refugee camps nearby. All of these different kind of points of contact are things that you can look at in disjointed and independent silos. You have to think of it as a holistic integrated interactive systems model almost, and really think about the ways in they’re all interconnected.

Can you tell me a better part can just talk about your experiences with the Madagascar Health and Environment research project?

This is really driven by my commitment to Madagascar. I started working there 20 years ago. I became more and more interested in the topic of planetary health which examined the human health impacts of environmental change.

I launched an organization that brought together Malagasy students and researchers, along with my team to really start to develop challenge oriented research. We focused on wildlife hunting. It’s such an interesting topic. We had students that ranged from animal ecologists, veterinarians, and physicians. We had economists, sociologists, and philosophers. Everyone was really working on this issue to try to understand how we could actively do research on this topic, how we can develop scalable research that then can be implemented into policy.

So the creation of the organization is what I credit with starting a planetary health movement in Madagascar to understand the interconnections of how environmental change can lead to human health impacts. It also highlighted the necessity for a cross sectoral approach where agriculture, rural development economics, and conservation are all working together for the same objectives. 

What would you like viewers to take away from virus hunters, after watching it?

I think the main message for viewers is to really understand that the way that we take care of our planet should be the same way that we should take care of ourselves. We really need to be thinking about how to be the best steward of our natural resources and to think critically about how all of our individual decisions have led to what’s happening right now. We really need to think carefully about how all of the unfolding environmental changes around the world are leading to changes in our own health and well being.

For more information about National Geographic’s Virus Hunters.

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