Even when it’s not Halloween, Simon Anthony, PhD, spends a lot of time with bats.
When Dr. Anthony isn’t in his office in the School’s Center for Infection and Immunity, he is circling the globe in search of deadly microbes. For the past year, he and a research team have gotten up close and personal with the Amazon rain forest, the most bio-diverse area on the planet. Huge anaconda and other poisonous snakes, jaguars, crocodiles, piranha, and frightening number of bizarre insects are all part of the scene. And there are the bats, great black clouds of them, representing 40 or so species, some carnivorous. Yes, even the blood-sucking vampire bat (see picture).
The real fright isn’t the bats, but what they carry. A single bat can be infected with as many as 50 viruses, some which have the sinister ability to “jump” across species and infect humans. An estimated 75% of emerging infectious diseases in humans come from wildlife, many times from bats. “Bats contain many viruses that infect people,” says Dr. Anthony. “Ebola, SARS, rabies, Nipah virus, Hendra virus: All these came from bats. And it’s a rapidly growing list.”
To learn more about the natural habit of these viruses before they emerge, the research team treks for miles into the dense jungle. Working in the dead of night, they trap bats—which are famously nocturnal—using large nets. Once caught, each animal is carefully brought to a mobile field station (team members all wear gloves and face masks). There, Dr. Anthony finds a vein in the wing and takes a blood sample, which is flash-frozen in liquid nitrogen. The bat is then released, unharmed. From catch to release takes all of 10 minutes.
Of course, much of the important work takes place outside of the jungle. Coordinators bring specimens to the Mailman School, where they are processed by Columbia University technicians such as Isamara Navarrete and Eliza Liang. Dr. Anthony leads this lab work under the guidance of W. Ian Lipkin, MD, director of the School’s Center for Infection and Immunity, and Peter Daszak, PhD, president of EcoHealth Alliance. “Simon is a brilliant young investigator and one of the few in pathogen surveillance and discovery who has expertise in both the field and the laboratory,” says Dr. Lipkin.
The Amazon study is part of a larger USAID-funded PREDICT Project, led by Jonna Mazet, PhD, at the University of California, Davis, but also comprising Global Viral Forecasting, the Wildlife Conservation Society, EcoHealth Alliance, and the Smithsonian Institutes. The mission is to discover pathogens that might jump from other species to humans, develop models to understand how and why those jum