The Woman Protecting Us From the Next Pandemic

The next deadly virus outbreak is in the hands of Jonna Mazet, a UC Davis wildlife epidemiologist and veterinary science professor. She leads PREDICT, a global surveillance that has detected more than 800 viruses of pandemic potential that could move between wildlife and people.

In this Q&A excerpted from an interview by Claudia Buck of The Sacramento Bee, Mazet talks about her role in working with people across the world dedicated to this cause. She was recently featured in a PBS special, “Spillover – Ebola, Zika & Beyond,” that chronicles worldwide efforts to identify and avoid the next killer virus.

Q: You’ve been called a virus hunter. Is that an accurate description of your work?

A: People like to come up with sexy names. A lot of the hard drudgery work of what we’re doing is not so sexy. … I don’t think of myself as a virus hunter, but someone trying to catalog all these viruses so we can predict and prevent these types of catastrophic events.

Q: Deadly virus outbreaks are inherently scary. West Africa’s Ebola deaths were horrifying, and the recent wave of Brazilian babies born with malformed heads from Zika are especially heartbreaking. With the Olympics starting Friday in Rio, do you fear any new exposures or vulnerabilities?

A: We’ve had people go to Olympic Games before where Zika existed but we just didn’t know it. It’s been in Africa more than 50 years and has been slowly moving through the world. … In Brazil, it’s definitely a hot zone of infection at this particular time. The majority of people who become infected with Zika have only minor symptoms or none at all. We don’t yet know what is the probability of your baby having ill effects, like microcephaly. It’s not 100 percent, but if you are pregnant or planning to become pregnant in the near future, you probably wouldn’t want to be in a transmission hot spot, like Brazil.

Q: You’ve also found that people’s jobs can affect virus spillover?

A: In Southeast Asia, there’s a developing market for bat guano. People are actually starting to farm bat guano (for fertilizer). They set up pergolas and shade structures with palm fronds that attract bats. It’s a developing industry because people need a good livelihood, and there’s a market for it. But in bat feces, there are lots of viruses and some can be infectious to people, like MERS [Middle East Respiratory Syndrome] and SARS [Severe acute respiratory syndrome].

Q: How do we prevent virus outbreaks?

A: Our government is doing more than any government in the world. We’re making a huge investment ($175 million over 10 years for PREDICT’s work). We’re training people around the world to be safer. … They’re getting trained in laboratory techniques, safety techniques so they’re in a good place to detect and diagnose.

Q: Some experts say it’s not a matter of if, but when, another global virus outbreak will occur. Are there particular hot spots that worry you?

A: The entire world is vulnerable. … It’s proven to us every single year when influenza comes around. [Viruses occur] as people search for new occupations, as more [development] pushes into wildlands, as there’s more contact between people and wildlife, which are the natural hosts. We’re seeing increases in these spillover events and diseases. … They used to be super-rare but they are happening.

But I don’t find the world any scarier than it ever was. Getting in my car is probably the scariest thing I do. I find information empowering. Giving people information and empowering them to understand risks and make good choices. If you want to start a family this year, maybe you don’t go into a hyper-endemic [Zika] area. You can make choices to reduce your risk.

Learn what a UC Davis epidemiologist thinks about the possibility of the common household mosquito transmitting Zika to you.

Susanne Rockwell, a longtime campus communicator and alumna, is web editor for the UC Davis homesite.

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