Most scientists were surprised to learn that SARS was a coronavirus, which had been better known for causing common colds than debilitating illness and death. But those who attended a 1997 American Society of Microbiology meeting had advance warning.
There, the School’s Don Burke delivered a lecture that predicted just such an outbreak. Burke argued that two things about coronaviruses made them dangerous: They were comparatively common in animal populations and they easily swapped genes and mutated into new viruses.
“I wasn’t trying to be a fortune teller,” Burke says. “What I saw was that coronaviruses have a proven track record of infecting animal species and a proven capability to evolve efficiently. That made them go to the head of the list of viruses that could jump the species barrier.”
Burke ended his lecture with a strong call for research into the animal diseases that may jump into human populations, including those that haven’t jumped yet. “If I were running NIH right now,” Burke says, “I’d be investing in studies of animal populations that have potentially virulent pathogens.”
Burke himself is tackling that challenge by examining unusual infectious diseases of non-human primates in the African rain forest, with an eye on whether they’ve infected any humans so far.
“What I’m arguing for are prediction and prevention, in addition to surveillance and response,” he says. “We should move our collective scientific attention upstream a little bit more. Then we’d be in a stronger position to do both surveillance and response, if we had a better understanding of what it is we’re looking for when we do surveillance.”
Burke concedes that in an era of tight resources, his call is a tough sell. “This isn’t a formal, hypothesis-driven kind of science,” he says. “It’s risky science. Some people call it a fishing expedition. I prefer to call it virus hunting.” —Jim Duffy