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Disease Detectives of Lebanon
Studying bats in order to understand viruses that affect people is not for the squeamish. People like Ghazi Kayali drop into bat caves on ropes. They carry nets that they use to catch bats. They swab the bats to gather samples of urine, feces, and saliva. Then they release the bats and take their samples to the lab to study.
Since the coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak, they do this unpleasant work wearing hazmat suits and respirators. When they’re done, they have to destroy the protective gear.
“Whenever you go sampling bats, you know you’re going to come back with a positive sample,” Kayali says. “You can go into a bat cave and all the bats look healthy. But when you examine them in the lab, you find viruses.”
Kayali co-founded Human Link. It’s an organization, based in Lebanon that studies viruses. He is an epidemiologist--kind of a disease detective. He looks for how viruses spread from animals to people. His work couldn’t be more important as the world deals with the Covid-19 pandemic.
Human Link is respected around the world. That’s essential in this kind of work. Scientists need the trust of other scientists, of course. But they also need the trust of everyday people. We all need guidance to protect ourselves and others from new viruses. Trust must support efforts to encourage people to social distance, wear face masks and cooperate with contact tracers trying to limit the spread of covid-19.
Kayali, and Human Link, have earned that trust.
Question: Why is trust important in the work that Human Link does? Whose respect is needed?
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Scientists need to trust and respect each other’s work because they build on it. Regular people need to respect scientists so that they will be willing to do what’s necessary in times of spreading disease.
Dr. William Karesh has worked with Kayali for the past four years. Karesh is an executive at the EcoHealth Alliance in New York. He says, “Human Link is very highly respected. And at a regional scale, they’re best in class.”
Kayali is kind of a celebrity. Earlier this year he appeared in the Netflix docuseries, Pandemic: How to Prevent an Outbreak. In it, he described how scientists would combat a global disease outbreak. He was one of many epidemiologists who predicted that a pandemic was bound to happen.
Unfortunately, he was right.
The quest to understand viruses and develop vaccines crosses national boundaries. It’s international. Take Kayali, for example. He got a Master’s degree at the University of Beirut and his Ph.D. at the University of Iowa. He worked in Memphis, Tennessee, and set up a lab in Cairo, Egypt. A lot of his research is funded by the National Institutes of Health in the United States.
Human Link and their Dutch colleagues were the first to find the MERS virus in camels. “We got the hint that camels might be involved and went out sampling.” What they found made it clear that people exposed to camels were at risk. From there, medical leaders created targeted public health campaigns
Question: How do researchers like Ghazi Kayali gather data? Why do they do this?
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- They go into bat caves, use nets to catch bats, and swab them to collect saliva, urine, and feces.
- To study the origins of viruses that affect humans, and how they spread.
Covid-19 probably started in bats. Even though bats rarely come into direct contact with humans, the virus has still jumped to people. How? The relationship among bats, viruses and the spread of disease, Kayali says, is “very intimate.” Often the disease starts to spread at food markets.
It’s in labs around the world, like Human Link’s, that the search for a vaccine starts.
“We’re working with the Egyptian Ministry of Health,” Kayali says. “The initial steps start in labs like mine. You develop a vaccine. You test it in your lab animals. If you see potential there, you produce a bigger batch and start human testing. Hopefully, we’ll have some results in a couple of months.”
Question: Once scientists develop a possible vaccine in the lab, what happens?
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They test the vaccine on lab animals, and if the results are promising, they begin testing on humans.