global health | August 21, 2011

Nathan Wolfe At TED: Connectivity is a Solution to Pandemics

Virus hunter, and acclaimed biologist
Nathan Wolfe takes us on a tour of 7 million years of pandemic history in a newly posted TEDMED video. In just a few minutes he expertly highlights the major shifts and major solutions surrounding the current and future battle against viral illnesses.

Wolfe illustrates how human evolution has made pandemics easier to spread. Besides being carnivores, getting jammed in a population bottleneck that damaged our microbial defenses, domesticating animals, and living in big contagious cities, one element of our being has dramatically changed the pandemic game more than all: transportation. “Perhaps the most important and critical event in human history was the advent of mass transportation. Planes, trains, ships, automobiles—these all connect global human populations and animal populations in a ways that are completely unprecedented,” says Wolfe. “We now represent a single massive viral mixing vessel. Viruses entering anywhere in the cycle have the capacity to spread anywhere in the world.”

But just as connectivity has opened up the world to spreading diseases, it's also offered a solution. Modern tech can help catch pandemics before they peak. Wolfe, founder and director of the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative, does just that, monitoring outbreaks in Africa and Asia to cut them off at the pass. He adds that tools like Google's Flu Trends, which monitors searches on the topic to chart upticks, are the way prevention is heading. He predicts that location services attached to ubiquitous cell phones will be another stage of tracking infections and spread, as will data from social nets like Facebook.

Nathan Wolfe, who is a member of this year's TIME 100, will release his first book, The Viral Storm: The Dawn of a New Pandemic Age, this fall. Called "a charismatic and rising star of the medical world" by fellow Lavin speaker Jared Diamond, Wolfe is a mesmerizing speaker, for scientific and general audiences alike. “There is so much in the world we don't yet know, so much left to discover,” he tells audiences. “And this is cause, not for despair, but for hope.”

Read more about global health speaker Nathan Wolfe