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Virus Hunters

The caves surrounding the village of Gbentu in northern Sierra Leone are held sacred in local culture. Kings have been laid to rest here, and tributes stowed within the crevasses. On this occasion, however, it is a dozen or so Sierra Leonean scientists in scrubs and gumboots. The head of the village instructs everyone to clear their throats to activate a spell against poisonous snakes.
Mist nets are unfurled across the various mouths of the caves and then the waiting begins.

Soon, plumes of bats rise like smoke from the caves. The bats that get caught in the nets are weighed and measured, oral and rectal swabs are taken and blood samples extracted from the veins in their wings. Then the bats are released back into the wild.

Of the 21 insect-eating bats from the Hipposideros genus that are tested it is hoped that one of them may turn out to be harbouring the next deadly pathogen that could sweep across the globe. Previously the team discovered a new strain of Ebola in bats from neighbouring Bombali district. By locating new diseases in the wild the team hope to prevent epidemics before they spread to humans.

The virus hunters of Sierra Leone are part of Predict, an international network launched with $200 million funding from USAID and currently operating in more than 30 countries. The project has 900 new viruses and is a forerunner of the Global Virome Project, a plan to identify as many as possible of the estimated 1.6 million unknown viruses in birds and mammals. Of these, it is thought between 600,000 and 800,000 are zoonotic, meaning they can jump from animals to people.

During the 2013 Ebola epidemic in West Africa, James Bangura was the lead surveillance officer for the government in Sierra Leone. The 39-year-old was awarded a presidential silver medal for his work and is now Predict's project coordinator in Sierra Leone.

Since being established in 2019, the Predict team in Sierra Leone has taken some 49,000 samples from bats, rodents, primates and livestock. The project is also developing a network of 70 trained health officers around the country.

Virus hunting is a relatively modern preoccupation, pioneered in the mid-to-late 20th century by scientists such as Peter Piot (director of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine) and Karl Johnson, who first identified the Ebola virus in 1976.

The samples taken by James Bangura's team are stored in the field at minus-80C before being transferred to a specialist infectious-diseases laboratory in the university city of Makeni. Laboratory manager Dr Raoul Emeric Wadoum says that the feeling of powerlessness in the face of recent epidemics has led to a massive upsurge in students graduating in public health at the university: from 13 in 2014 to 67 last year.

All the domestic livestock samples taken by the Predict team are analysed in Makeni, but those from wild animals are shipped to the University of California, Davis and Columbia University in New York. In July 2020, researchers there confirmed the discovery of two new viruses in bats in Myanmar which belong to the coronavirus family.

Virus hunting is changing as Africa's population expands to reach an expected two billion by 2050. As people encroach into the environment, the potential to encounter new viruses grows. Local attachment to bushmeat is another challenge that authorities continue to come up against. The country's markets were closed during the Ebola outbreak but are now once more selling tropical game including monkeys, chimpanzees, cane rats, bats and snakes. Bushmeat is entrenched in local culture and is often a vital form of subsistence. The health risks, however, are enormous. The HIV/Aids pandemic started about a century ago in Cameroon when a chimpanzee virus was transmitted to a human who almost certainly killed, butchered or consumed it.

James Bangura and his team attempt to work with bushmeat hunters and vendors, though he admits it is difficult to achieve any impact. The virus hunters encounter suspicion wherever they go. A prevailing myth remains in rural Sierra Leone that Ebola was either released intentionally or the product of a research project gone wrong. Many locals are suspicious of healthcare professionals and in Guinea in September 2014, eight members of a team trying to raise awareness of Ebola were hacked to death by villagers wielding machetes and clubs.

The sight of people in white suits still evokes the dreaded burial teams who would remove corpses from homes to prevent traditional funerals, which are a key transmitter of disease, but also deeply important to families. In local culture, bodies are washed by relatives at a moment when the virus is at its infectious peak. It is also common to lie over the corpse to connect with the spirits.

In the Kissi tribe, a dead pregnant woman's foetus must be cut out before she is laid to rest. During the Ebola outbreak, the WHO estimated that at least 20 per cent of new Ebola infections occurred as a result of such rituals. In Sierra Leone more than 66,000 bodies were moved to hastily created cemeteries, regardless of whether they had been diagnosed with Ebola or not, to prevent the spread of the disease. In many cases the relatives were not even told where their loved ones had been buried.

Ebola survivor Margaret Kamara is one such example. The 39-year-old, who lives in the village of Yeli Sanda on the outskirts of Makeni city, lost 15 relatives in total, including her husband and four children. 'I do not know where their graves are,' she says. 'I survived but have cried every day since. All the people who tried to help me have died.'

Burial grounds remain all over the country, slowly being reclaimed by the surrounding bush. Some of the graves bear just a number and the date they were buried. Their names and cause of death will forever remain a mystery.

Adapted from an article by © Joe Shute / Telegraph. For the full version, please get in touch.
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