Stopping a Virus, Using Math

Africa can sometimes be a continent filled with do-gooders, with people who try to solve a problem unique to Africa. Other times, it can be a problem in Africa with implications for the rest of the world. As we headed to  Tanzania, we wanted to check in with Pardis Sabeti, a researcher who spends time in Nigeria to focus on the second type of challenge.

Sabeti has the kind of resume most people dream of. She’s a Harvard researcher with degrees from MIT and Oxford. She’s a former Rhodes scholar with the title of computational geneticist. A couple years ago, the London Daily Telegraph named her one of 100 living geniuses, tied with Henry Kissinger and Stevie Wonder. Last year, National Geographic named her an Emerging Explorer, a title given each year to a handful of researchers and advocates who have demonstrated, in short, that they’re going places.

Sabeti is a computational geneticist, effectively a mathematician who specializes in what gives different organisms the qualities they have. Lately she’s focused on one in particular. She splits her time between Massachusetts and Lagos, Nigeria, to research a microscopic virus known as Lassa. I had heard of Lassa, a viral strain most common in West Africa, but never in depth.

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Sabeti hears that a lot.

“It’s a little like a band before they get big. It’s the most interesting virus that no one’s ever heard of,” she tells me over the phone before running off to someone waiting in her office. (She’s very kind, but undeniably busy). Lassa currently affects about 300,000 people a year, which isn’t an enormous number globally, except that its fatality rate can be as high as 50 percent. This motivates researchers to crack its code in case it spreads.

The research question that has fascinated Sabeti since she was a kid is how to use math to stop a virus’s spread. To do that, she has worked to map the entire genome of the virus. It’s tedious work, but she’s made progress, plotting the entire genetic code of Lassa. The goal is to develop better diagnostics. Or in other words, knowing the viruses genetic make up can help medics know how it’ll behave, and then how to treat it.

In a disaster movie about a virus pandemic taking over the world, the fictional president might call someone like Sabeti, who not only understands Lassa, but also how viruses spread. I asked her a fairly glib question about the likelihood of some sort of virus infect everyone on Earth. “You know,” she said, “the likelihood of a new virus popping up is very low. If you were just going to guess what’s going to be the next pandemic, it’s probably something that’s doing pretty well right now.”

The algorithm that Sabeti developed is essentially a detective tool to investigate gene mutations in both humans and things like Lassa or malaria that would make humans sick. It’s a relatively unexplored frontier, with an added element of job security considering viruses tend to mutate, sometimes substantially, every year. “Every day we’re trying to solve a puzzle,” she says. “And it’s the kind of puzzle where you can help a lot of people if you get it right.”