Since 2009, American scientists have discovered more than 900 new viruses. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. government is doubling down 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 on the search for 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 globe for decades. Of top concern are viruses that are capable of jumping from wild animals to humans, as COVID-19 likely did. It’s called spillover. Disease detectives warn the threat of spillover has never been higher as urban populations grow and come into contact with wild animals – and their viruses – for the first time.
Whitaker went along with the UC Davis team and their Ugandan partners as they headed to an abandoned mine shaft to look for bats. Johnson said bats are prime suspects for spillover. They harbor more viruses lethal to humans than any other mammal. New bat species—and new viruses—are still being discovered.
They’re also known to carry coronaviruses—the same virus family that spawned COVID-19—as well as lethal ebola viruses.
So Whitaker and company had to dress head to toe in protective gear. Once the hazmat suit was on, they added two sets of gloves, a mask, and a face shield to guard against flying guano and other toxins.
The Impenetrable Forest was soon pitch black and we had only the light from our headlamps to guide us. Soon, they’d trapped a large Egyptian fruit bat. Ugandan wildlife vet Benard Ssebide gently disentangled it and put it in a fabric sack. We followed him back to the makeshift lab, glowing in the dark.
Up close, the bats did little to dispel their fearsome reputations. Whitaker and his crew watched as the fruit bat grew agitated, trying to escape. The scientists held its nose to a test tube filled with a mild anesthetic. Finally, the bat succumbed. Johnson said the bat would be swabbed for a suite of viruses.
“It doesn’t hurt the bat,” Johnson said. “We get the right size swab so that we’re just doing an oral sample. It might be a little uncomfortable.”
The bat’s wings were examined for parasites and ticks that might also have pathogens. All the samples would be sent to a lab for DNA sequencing. Johnson said a virus’s genetic code can help identify which might cross to humans.
After the tests were done, the bats were released, groggy but unharmed.