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In search of viruses that can cause another pandemic – 60 minutes

Since 2009, American scientists have discovered more than 900 new viruses. After the COVID-19 pandemic, the US government is twice as likely to send virus hunters to global hotspots to TRY to find the next deadly virus before it finds us. Bill Whittaker joined a team from the University of California, Davis, and their Ugandan partners in the harsh Impenetrable Forest in search of 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 when, it’s a matter of if. That’s why we’re so committed to preparation.”

Johnson leads the UC Davis team and has been hunting viruses around the world for decades. Of greatest concern are viruses that are able to jump from wild animals to humans, as COVID-19 is likely to have done. This is called an overflow. Detectives warn that the threat of spread has never been higher as urban populations grow and come into contact with wild animals and their viruses for the first time.

Whittaker, along with the UC Davis team and their Ugandan partners, headed to an abandoned mine to look for bats. Bats are the prime suspects in the spread, Johnson said. They contain more deadly viruses to humans than any other mammal. New bat species and new viruses are still being discovered.

They are also known to carry coronaviruses—the same family of viruses that gave rise to COVID-19—as well as the deadly Ebola virus.

So Whittaker and company had to dress up head to toe in protective gear. Once the protective suit was on, they added two sets of gloves, a mask and a face shield to protect against flying guano and other toxins.

Soon it was completely dark in the Impenetrable Forest, and we had only the light of our headlamps to guide us. They soon trapped a large Egyptian fruit bat. Ugandan wildlife vet Benard Ssebide carefully untangled it and placed it in a cloth bag. We followed him back to the makeshift laboratory, which glowed in the dark.

Up close, bats have done little to dispel their fearsome reputation. Whittaker and his team watched as the fruit mouse agitated as it tried to escape. The scientists raised their noses to a test tube filled with a mild anesthetic. Finally the bat gave up. Johnson said the bat will be swabbed for a set of viruses.

“It doesn’t hurt the bat,” Johnson said. “We take a tampon that’s the right size, so we just do an oral sample. It can be a little uncomfortable.”

The bat’s wings were examined for parasites and mites, which may also contain pathogens. All samples will be sent to a laboratory for DNA sequencing. Johnson said that the genetic code of the virus can help determine which can be passed on to humans.

After the tests were done, the bats were released, dazed but intact.


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