The Viral Storm Book By Nathan Wolfe
When a National Geographic documentary revealed to young Nathan Wolfe that he was closely related to apes, he spent the next few days walking around the house on all fours, trying to communicate without words and hoping “to bring out his inner ape.”
So began his lifelong fascination with primates. It eventually led him to Oxford, where he encountered the idea that Uganda’s Kibale Forest chimpanzees might actually eat “…plants with specific medicinal chemicals as a way of fighting against their own infectious diseases.”
So Wolfe jumped at the opportunity to study the Ugandan chimps in the wild while working on his Harvard PhD. To ensure his research was valid, he also became an expert in infectious microbes.
He learned that viruses and other microbes lurking in animal tissue commonly jump from species to species through hunting. To viruses, he writes, “Hunting and butchering represent the ultimate intimacy.”
As Wolfe witnessed on the day a tribe of the Kibale chimps hunted and killed a red colobus monkey, the feeding frenzy that followed “…was creating the ideal environment for any infectious agents present in the monkeys to spread to the chimpanzees.”
“The blood, saliva, and feces were spattering into the orifices of their bodies, providing the perfect opportunity for direct entry of a virus.”
The parallel between humans hunting and butchering wild animals and the chimps butchering and devouring the monkey wasn’t lost on him. Those hunters, he insists, “…are at the front line of viral transmission from animals to humans.”
His biggest concern, however, is with the hunters who sell live animals at “wet” markets in densely populated areas. They’re exposing huge numbers of people to “… the entire panoply of … microbes” their captives host.
Wet markets, however, aren’t the only places where viruses can win “the microbial lottery.” Wolfe explains how buying prepackaged grocery-store meat removes us from the messy process of butchering.
What it doesn’t remove is the butchered animals’ blood and bodily fluids from the contaminated meat. Even more alarmingly, every package of hamburger or hot dogs contains meat from hundreds of animals, possibly from multiple countries.
Add it all up, and over the course of a lifetime, today’s average meat eater will consume the flesh of millions of animals! We console ourselves that modern cooking methods can protect us — and to a certain point, they can.
But we’re not talking one deer hunter and one deer! The sheer number of interactions between the butchered beasts and humans it takes to produce one pound of hot dogs raises the likelihood of a “rogue” microbe making the interspecies jump.
And the scientific evidence indicates it’s already happened, with both the sheep disease scrapie and mad cow disease spreading to humans through butchering.
The Viral Storm’s message couldn’t be timelier: All hunting and butchering carries risks. But industrial livestock production dramatically raises the odds of an animal virus’ infecting humans on a pandemic scale.
The book is so timely, in fact, that I had to return to the copyright page and verify its 2011 publication date. Wolfe’s random mention of having worked with Dr. Debbie Birx was eerily prescient of current events.
Ironically, he isn’t a vegan and freely discusses having eaten many wild animals. During a research trip to Borneo, he even unwittingly downed the dog meat someone slipped onto his plate.
Just maybe, Nathan Wolfe is still longing to bring out his “inner ape!”
For me, this book was a clear call to avoid eating butchered animals.