In 2020, we’ve seen the colossal damage that a global pandemic can cause. Now bio-ecologist and epidemiologist Dr. Chris Golden and ABC News foreign correspondent James Longman are on the trail of the next deadly pandemic.

In the new National Geographic (DStv 181) documentary Virus Hunters, they’re travelling around the world to meet field scientists who’re studying viruses and their transmission – including Jim Desmond (founder of the Liberia Chimpanzee Rescue & Protection, wildlife veterinarian and a disease and wildlife interventionist), Supaporn Wacharaplusadee (a virus gene tracker) and Kendra Phelps (field scientist at EcoHealth Alliance, and a bat scientist) – to connect the dots between disease, culture and the environment.

Their aim: to find out how we can stop the next pandemic before it starts.

Chris says, “The main aim for me was to have people generate a better understanding of how the environment and human health were inextricably linked. You cannot take one without considering the other. When we alter and reshape the surface of the Earth – as we’ve been doing for the past 50 to 100 years, really transforming the underlying natural systems – this will have severe impacts and consequences on our own health. We really must think about how we can develop paths forward that involve supporting environmental protection and human well-being, and thinking of that as a co-beneficial objective. Virus Hunters will aim to offer solutions.”

But making a continent-hopping documentary and travelling from the US to Turkey and Liberia in the midst of the global lockdown? That’s another story.

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Chasing a virus without catching it

“I served as a consultant for the film as well, so I was fairly involved in the planning for the documentary,” says Chris. “They had a few different regions in mind, and we were developing ideas around locations where we would be filming the story. There was an existing relationship with Eco Health Alliance – both Jim Desmond and Kendra Phelps are members – so much of the contact went through there. And then we narrowed our scope based on where we could actually travel as Americans during the pandemic, which was a really limited number of countries. There were other options of working in Thailand, working in Madagascar, in Australia, but all of those countries continued to be closed to us… with very good reason.”

“The major obstacles (in travelling) were our own fears of being exposed to the virus, so we took incredible precautions during the actual travel process. I was barely leaving my house before going to film. Even going to the grocery store was something that we weren’t doing during that phase of the pandemic. So we were wiping down every surface that we came in contact with, we were wearing our masks nearly the entire day until we were isolated in our own rooms. We did create a bubble with our film crew for the purposes of filming and travelling. But we were doing everything that we could to prevent transmission,” Chris reveals, before adding that “the risk profile of the United States is much higher than many other locations. Once we were tested, and we were tested regularly, and we would arrive in a country, you almost do feel a bit safer being elsewhere than being here at home.”

Mutual protection

The Virus Hunters team weren’t just suiting up to protect themselves. “These are ways in which animals can present risks to humans through disease transmission, but absolutely vice versa as well,” explains Chris. “When we went to visit the chimpanzee sanctuary in Liberia, we were not allowed to make contact with the chimps or touch them. If they came over to touch you or investigate you or you piqued their curiosity, you were allowed to stand and not interact with them. Those concerns are real. These are not unidirectional relationships.”

A strange journey

Chris and the Virus Hunters team covered a lot of strange ground while working on the documentary. But one moment stands out to Chris as overwhelmingly strange. “The most shocking experience for me was walking through the bushmeat market in Monrovia in Liberia,” he reveals. “That was an incredibly hectic scene, and I don’t know if it will feel that way to viewers, but it was chaotic. All of your senses were piqued in there. You had the visuals, the extreme heat, the smell of smoked meat, the crowded nature of the market itself. All of those things were shocking to me, especially as someone who has worked roughly in this field for the past 20 years.” It wasn’t just the mass destruction of wildlife that was horrific – it was the awareness of what a dangerous environment it is for the transmission of zoonotic viruses.

Save the environment, save ourselves

Earlier this year at National Geographic’s (DStv 181) Upfronts, Jim Desmond, Kendra Phelps and Chris spoke about how closely-knit environmental health is to human health and the prevention of pandemics.

Jim explains that wildlife conservation can help to protect humanity from disease directly by preventing contact with animals that could carry zoonotic diseases. “Here in Liberia, there are wild chimpanzees that are part of the ecosystem, but they're hunted for bushmeat. There's a pretty big bushmeat trade here in Liberia and West Africa and spreading out from there. It’s one of the interfaces where people can become exposed to potentially dangerous pathogens from the different wildlife that they might be catching and killing – and then selling,” he points out.

Protecting the environment not only reduces human contact with animals that potentially carry transmissible diseases, it reduces the pressure on the animal populations themselves, so fewer of them are susceptible to disease. “A healthy environment equals healthy animals equals healthy humans. So taking care of the environment and wildlife species and keeping those separate from human populations is how we can prevent the next spill over or transfer of bats into human populations,” says Kendra. “One of the biggest misconceptions that the public has is that it’s the bat’s fault or the fault of any wildlife… for transmitting a virus to humans when, in fact, it’s human encroachment into wildlife habitat that is providing an opportunity for human-wildlife interactions that naturally would not occur. What makes it difficult is because we want to blame somebody else. We don’t want to think of how we’re interacting with the environment and how that is actually driving these pandemics.”

Chris concludes, “If we are thinking about the ways in which humans are impacting nearly every ecosystem around the world – from deforestation, to sea-level rise, to urbanisation and all of these multiple pathways in which the environment is changing – these are having devastating impact, not only on people, but they’re also having it on wildlife. When we are damaging wildlife and causing them further stress, it further creates these opportunities for viral transmission to occur. And, so, by doubling down and really focusing on conservation efforts on issues of wildlife trade and on issues of this increasing interface with human-and-wildlife interaction, we can really try to prevent the next pandemic from occurring.”

Looking ahead

A lot kept changing in the world after filming on Virus Hunters ended. “The main thing to add to the story today is the ongoing evolution of how COVID has been reaching all corners of the Earth, and the ways in which differential management types of how we intervene with the disease is also really a critically important factor. A lot of what we dealt with in Virus Hunters was really around the discovery and the emergence of disease. But as with any of these types of things, you really need to address these root causes, but you also need to address how we respond, intervene and react to disease emergence as well,” notes Chris.

Watch Virus Hunters on Wednesday, 25 November on National Geographic (DStv 181) at 21:00

And don’t miss…

  • Breakthrough: Virus Hunters Update on Wednesday, 18 November on National Geographic (DStv 181) at 21:00
  • Going Viral: From Ebola To COVID-19 on Wednesday, 2 December on National Geographic (DStv 181) at 21:00
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