Scientists join pandemic prevention program

Gun deaths rise sharply among children, study finds


More than a decade ago, two scientists – one in Nigeria and the other in the United States – noticed a worrying trend. A deadly disease was appearing in West Africa, but it often went unnoticed or misdiagnosed. This could have pandemic-level consequences. So these two scientists decided to do something. NPR's Ari Daniel has his story.

ARI DANIEL, BYLINE: In the summer of 2014, at the airport in Lagos, Nigeria, a passenger landed with a fever. Neighboring countries were in the midst of what would become the largest Ebola outbreak ever seen. So health workers were deeply concerned when this guy arrived in a city of more than 20 million people.

PARDIS SEBETI: We were in the middle of a tragedy on the verge of a cataclysm. It could be unstoppable.

DANIEL: Pardis Sabeti is a computational geneticist at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The man was tested for Ebola by doctors at a public laboratory in Lagos, but the results were inconclusive, which unfortunately is all too common.

CHRISTIAN HAPPI: If you can't diagnose a disease, it will be very difficult to manage.

DANIEL: It’s Christian Happi. He's a molecular biologist at Redeemer University in Nigeria, and he and Sabeti are an infectious disease-fighting duo.

HAPPI: She is what I call my academic better half.

SABETI: I would also call him my ride or die, and I just know he will always have my back.

DANIEL: The two men met while studying malaria 25 years ago. They became closer while working together on a project on Lassa fever in Sierra Leone. Then, in late 2013, people started getting sick in Guinea, West Africa. It would start with a fever and could end in death. It took months before health authorities were concerned enough to take blood samples.

HAPPI: The sample had to be shipped to France, and it took them another three weeks to get the result.

DANIEL: This result – Ebola. But over those weeks and months, the virus spread, mutated and killed. It swept through Sierra Leone, hitting the hospital where the two men had close associates.

SABETI: It spread like wildfire through the clinical staff. So I was in shock at that moment.

DANIEL: In part, she says, because much of this suffering was avoidable. Sabeti and Happi considered an inspiring possibility: what if active surveillance of viruses like this could take place on the ground in Africa by Africans?

HAPPI: We really thought that – OK, now is the time to empower local health workers to detect these pathogens that are circulating, to do things on their own.

DANIEL: So they co-founded ACEGID, the African Center of Excellence for Infectious Disease Genomics in Nigeria. Happi became its director, and luckily it came into existence in early 2014, just as the Ebola outbreak was growing. So when the test carried out on this feverish passenger in Lagos proved inconclusive, authorities called Happi. Perhaps ACEGID could diagnose this man's illness.

HAPPI: I knew I was going to face something very dangerous. And I remember telling my wife that if I don't come back, take care of the kids. And she said, go ahead. God will be with you.

DANIEL: Happi went to the lab and put on the PPE that Sabeti had sent for a situation like this. Just before dawn, they got their answer.

HAPPI: We could see that – oh, my God, it's Ebola.

DANIEL: Happi advised officials on how to implement contact tracing, isolation and continued monitoring. In Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, more than 11,000 people have died from Ebola. But in Nigeria, there were only eight deaths, largely because Happi and ACEGID were able to diagnose Ebola there – not in weeks or days, but in hours. This is ACEGID's war plan to thwart the disease in the region. Let's say someone shows up to a clinic or hospital with a fever.

HAPPI: But you don't know if it's malaria, Ebola or yellow fever. Everything is fever.

DANIEL: ACEGID offers a battery of tests for each of them and much more. But if these return no results, then they sequence the genetic material of the unknown pathogen, which gives them a way to detect this new thing.

SABETI: You can immediately go racing that day with a functional diagnosis.

DANIEL: Which can then be transmitted to health facilities to monitor the outbreak and take measures to contain it. ACEGID now empowers others to do this work themselves. They have trained more than 1,500 people from 48 African countries.

SABETI: The most profound thing ACEGID does is create a continent of people who are classmates together in the same company. This kind of coordination, this kind of camaraderie – it's the only way to truly stop pandemics.

DANIEL: This spring, ACEGID will move into a new state-of-the-art building on the Redeemer University campus. During the opening ceremony, they will play a new mix of this song. Sabeti, who is also a rock musician, wrote the lyrics in the middle of the Ebola outbreak in 2014, just after she and Happi lost all their dear colleagues and friends.


THOUSAND DAYS: (Singing) Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah…

HAPPI: When I listened to that, I was like wow. I can tell you that I had tears in my eyes.


A THOUSAND DAYS: (Singing) A life that we write, and we laugh, and we cry, and we pray, and we are love…

DANIEL: Sabeti remembers the moment those words came to her – a tumble of pain, purpose and family.

SABETI: We are fighting this fight together. That's all I know. Like, that’s all I know – right? – is that we are fighting this fight together.

DANIEL: Ari Daniel, NPR News.


A THOUSAND DAYS: (singing) Hunger will never die, and I'm still here in this fight. Ah ah ah ah. Yeah yeah yeah yeah. Ah ah ah ah. Yeah yeah yeah yeah…

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