Where Plagues Come From: Making A Catalog of the World’s Viruses

In 1999, a new disease came to light–a brutal fever that sometimes led to fatal encephalitis. After the first outbreak in Malaysia, scientists traced the cause of the disease to a virus called Nipah. Although it was new to medicine, Nipah virus didn’t come out of thin air. It had replicated for generations inside Indian Flying Foxes, a common species of fruit bat in southeast Asia. The virus spilled over into humans, thanks to the fondness both species have for date palms. Now Nipah virus can spread from person to person.

This scenario sounds like it came from the pitch meeting for last year’s creepfest Contagionlast year’s creepfest Contagion. Unfortunately, it’s all quite well documented. So is the emergence of many other viral diseases. (Check out David Quammen’s book Spillover for a sweeping view of these new diseases.)

In my Matter column this week in the New York TimesIn my Matter column this week in the New York Times, I take a look at a new way to battle these emerging diseases: by figuring out how many viruses there are in mammals that might spill over in the future. Scientists have taken the first step to such a virus catalog with a suitable species: the Indian Flying Fox. And unfortunately, it’s chockful of mammal viruses, most of which are new to science. Here’s the full story. (Also check out fellow Phenom Ed Yong’s report on the study for The Scientist.)