An EcoHealth Alliance team of researchers walks through the forest in hazmat suits to a bat cave to capture bats for sampling. (National Geographic/Daniel Hollis)
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‘Virus Hunters’: The most critical scientific mission of a generation

The world has spent the majority of 2020 living in the shadow of fear from Covid-19 and the chaos that ensued. Many of us had doubts about the gravity of the situation, and some even believed it was a hoax. 

Now, the number of cases in the US has reached over 9 million, and on Oct. 23, we set a single-day record with 84,218 people diagnosed. But is it possible we could have stopped it all from the beginning? How can we prevent another contagion from disrupting and ruining lives? 

In National Geographic’s “Virus Hunters,” which premieres today, National Geographic fellow, epidemiologist and ecologist Christopher Golden along with ABC News foreign correspondent James Longman travel the globe to connect the dots and pinpoint where and how such viruses could escape into the world. The documentary is also a companion special to National Geographic Magazine’s single-topic November Issue on COVID-19.

Along the journey, they meet with virus gene tracker Supaporn Wacharaplusadee, bat and field scientist Kendra Phelps, U.S. Defense Department/Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency researcher Rohit Chitale, and disease and wildlife interventionist, Dr. Jim Desmond.

Kendra Phelps of the EcoHealth Alliance team of virus hunters holds a bat while taking samples. (National Geographic/Daniel Hollis)

I had a chance to talk with Desmond over the phone about his role in the documentary and how he became involved with researching emerging diseases. He explained how after a project in Liberia looking for the wildlife reservoir for Ebola, National Geographic was interested in taking a look at his work for the documentary.

Working alongside Dr. Golden, Desmond learned and shared their different approaches to identifying the risk of viruses to human population. 

“I’d never met [Golden] before, but I knew of his name. He has similar experience but…he has a different approach where he’s looking more at human behavior and interaction with the wildlife and with the environment and how those things might impact human behavior. It was really interesting to get his take on his work,” Desmond said.

James Longman and Chris Golden stand over a mine and search for signs of ecological disruption that increase viral spread. (National Geographic/Daniel Hollis)

Although Desmond used to work in the pharmaceutical industry, after volunteering at an orangutan rehabilitation center in Borneo and meeting other researchers, he became interested in how easily viruses could be spread from an animal. 

“It was something that I didn’t know anything about and I didn’t realize that it was even anything to be concerned about,” Desmond said. “Knowing that humans could get diseases from animals, and then also that a lot of the endangered species around the world especially primates could get diseases from humans really just fascinated me.” 

A chimp plays at Jim Desmond’s chimp sanctuary, where he is being raised after being rescued from illegal poachers. (National Geographic/Daniel Hollis)

This trip shifted his career course, as he returned back to the U.S. and applied to veterinary school, his dream job as a kid. He spent his career traveling the world caring for wildlife as well as identifying how diseases such as Covid-19 were introduced to the human population. 

“When I heard the first reports [about Covid-19] in early January, I was pretty concerned,” Desmond said.  “After a couple of weeks after the first reports, I was pretty sure it was going to be spreading around the globe. It seemed like it was already too late when people started paying attention.”

Desmond has spent two decades on the front lines, fighting for healthy wildlife and a healthy world through his work in animal welfare, disease intervention and conservation. He led projects in rescuing and protecting primates from chimpanzees to gorillas to orangutans. 

“I love the science and I love working with people in the field and training people. It can be challenging but I think we have an obligation as a species [and] as humans because we basically hold the fate of the planet in our hands,” Desmond said. “I think we all need to be trying to do something to protect the planet. To protect other humans and also to protect other species.”

An EcoHealth Alliance team of researchers in hazmat suits sets up a harp trap outside of a bat cave to capture bats for sampling. (National Geographic/Daniel Hollis)

When asked about what people can do to make it through this pandemic help prevent the next one, Desmond heavily emphasized trusting our scientists and believes our government’s public health system “hasn’t been utilized effectively in this pandemic.

“I think people really need to be listening to the scientists like Dr. Anthony Fauci and other people within the CDC. They’re the ones who really understand how to mitigate the spread as much as possible,” Desmond said. “Wearing masks right now is the best way to prevent transmission. Younger people a lot of times feel indestructible… but they could be spreading it.”

Today, Desmond lives in Liberia, where he’s been for the past five years as the cofounder of Liberia Chimpanzee Rescue and Protection with his wife. Together, they work to improve the lives of both wild and orphaned chimpanzees. He hopes that this pandemic changes the way people interact with our natural world, because every time we tamper with the natural, we’re putting ourselves at more risk. 

“Virus Hunters” premieres tonight at 9/8c. Tune in to take a look into the gritty reality of these heroic experts and their journey to stop the next pandemic. Check out the trailer here.