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The Virus Hunters

How the Pursuit of Unknown Viruses Risks Triggering the Next Pandemic

Over the past two decades, fears of bioterrorism have increased U.S. funding for a particularly aggressive subgenre of viral surveillance that entails hunting and studying previously unknown viruses in wildlife. “Outbreak prediction,” as it’s sometimes called, pushes beyond the tracking of diseases that affect people, which public health officials have relied on for decades to understand the scope and causes of epidemics. The new viral research aims to find the most dangerous pathogens before they jump to humans. Proponents of this approach — which involves hunting viruses in remote locations as well as transporting, storing, and sometimes experimenting on the most dangerous pathogens — say it’s necessary to prevent the next outbreak.

But others warn that the ongoing pursuit of deadly viruses that have yet to infect people is unlikely to prevent infectious diseases from emerging or help us cope with them when they do. Instead, they say, there are several ways this research could set off the next pandemic — and could have, in fact, led to this one.