Bradley Schneider

Young Leader tracks novel viruses, mitigating threats to human health

July 23, 2013

Dr. Bradley S. Schneider, a 2010 Foundation Young Leader, serves as the Director of Laboratory Sciences for Metabiota, managing Metabiota’s research, surveillance, and response activities in Africa and Asia.

Dr. Schneider studies various “hot spots” around the world where new disease threats have emerged in the past, tracking viruses and seeking to identify the emergence of novel viruses before they pose a major threat to human health.

Dr. Schneider has worked with a broad range of pathogens in diverse settings, including some of the most logistically challenging regions of the world. He provides oversight, strategic direction, and management of laboratory and field activities in austere sites, such as Gabon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon, Indonesia, Malaysia, and China. He currently manages international laboratory teams, comprising expatriates and local nationals, engaged in efforts to deploy modern diagnostic capabilities within host country veterinary and public health systems to foster biological safety and international cooperative research.

Previously, at the Division of Vector Borne Infectious Disease at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), he gained expertise in tick-borne pathogens and proficiency in a broad spectrum of laboratory and field techniques. More recently, Dr. Schneider worked at the Pasteur Institute in Paris as a visiting scientist, coordinating a project investigating susceptibility to severe forms of dengue virus disease and assisting negotiations for scientific collaboration in institutional, domestic, and international settings. He has provided scientific consulting to both the U.S. government and private-sector entities in biodefense, emerging infectious diseases, and outbreak response. Dr. Schneider has served globally in leadership and advisory roles as a member of academic, ethics, editorial, review, and search committees. 

Dr. Schneider holds a Ph.D. in Virology and Experimental Pathology from the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, and a B.S. in Microbiology and Biopsychology from the University of Colorado at Boulder.

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Brad, we are honored to be able to share your fascinating story and career with our French and American readers. We were delighted to have you participate in our Young Leaders program in 2010 and 2011. What was your favorite part? Why is this program important to you?
For me, the true strength of the French-American Foundation’s Young Leaders program lies in the wealth of engaging and dynamic individuals who participate. I find that often, in our day-to-day lives, we become siloed in our respective vocational communities, and meaningful interactions with individuals outside our domain are largely absent. The Young Leaders program provided me with an opportunity to engage with not just people in other career paths, but rather emerging leaders in a diverse variety of fields.

The wonderful locations, discussions, and special access granted to us acted as a stage to build relationships with some truly marvelous and vibrant people. I was inspired by this experience to take more control of the direction of my path, think more broadly, and seek out and build more multidisciplinary bridges in my work, but overall I was just greatly inspired by the passion and courage of my fellow Young Leaders. 

My favorite part was a harrowing boat ride on rough seas to a tasty lunch situated in an idyllic secluded setting along the rocky coast of Marseille (followed by another exciting boat ride).

Your company recently changed names from Global Viral Forecasting Inc. to Metabiota. “Metabiota” is a microbiological term referring to a stable relationship between a group of hosts and the various microbes that inhabit them. Tell us about your work. What do you do on a day-to-day basis?
Despite the image of “virus hunters” traveling through lush rainforests to remote villages (perhaps in biohazard suits), most of my days are far less adventurous. Although I travel frequently to places rarely frequented by tourists, my day-to-day involves meetings, communicating with my field teams via Skype and email, analyzing lab and surveillance data, and lots of writing. Nonetheless, on two recent trips I was in China and the Democratic Republic of Congo to aid in the response to an avian influenza and Ebola outbreak, respectively. One of my favorite trips took me to a bat cave in full protective gear deep (14 hours from the capital city) in the pristine rainforests in Gabon, in search of the origins of Ebola virus and other bat-borne viruses.

You started your career at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and have since worked for a number of initiatives closely linked with the public sector. Do you feel that the U.S. government is properly prepared for health threats? Have recent cutbacks hindered these efforts?
Although we have made improvements, I have to say we are not prepared. Overall, public health surveillance capabilities remain restricted and fragmented and have uneven global coverage. For example, if we look at swine flu (H1N1) as a test case, the United States and the global community mounted a significant response, yet the pandemic infected as many as ninety million people in the United States alone and hundreds of millions throughout the world. It turns out we were lucky with this pandemic, as it was a much milder virus than its close relative, the Spanish flu of 1918 that killed 50 million people globally.

The recognition of the importance of strengthening public health surveillance worldwide to provide early warning for emerging diseases has been rapidly growing. The U.S. government is more focused on building our biosurveillance capabilities and implementing recommendations for improving the detection, prevention, and management of biohazards than ever before. Nonetheless, the risk of pandemics caused by emerging diseases is a significant challenge to control, as it requires coordinated efforts globally; like terrorism or climate change, you can do much to prepare yourself, but if others don’t follow suit, then the risk will remain improperly addressed.

In both the developed and developing world, public health systems are underfinanced and overwhelmed. Increased and enhanced coordination is needed among local, federal, and international agencies. Integration of efforts and coordination of budgetary resources for prevention and control is obviously a challenge that governments, both locally and internationally, will need to confront, as well as building the capacity to sustain these efforts.

With such in-depth knowledge of health threats across the globe, do you ever feel concerned or even overwhelmed? What is your biggest fear or worst-case scenario? 
You can’t focus on the worst-case scenarios, but it is troubling knowing that viruses are constantly “pinging” us as a species, probing us for our weaknesses on a global scale. They evolve more rapidly than our defenses can to combat them. It is just a matter of time before another SARS, HIV, or Spanish flu breaks through. Then the question will be, will we detect it early and stop it when it is a small outbreak, or will it spread globally? 

I think the worst-case scenario is for a virus with the human-to-human transmissibility of flu to emerge with the mortality rate of SARS coronavirus, Nipah virus, or smallpox virus; then you could have a virus that spreads to over a third of the world population that kills 30 – 75 percent of the people it infects.

Your work has taken you to multiple climates, environments, and cultures. Do you find that different locales and cultural or societal practices greatly change the threat of viruses, particularly the risk of outbreak? 
Most new viruses that affect humans originated from animals. For example, the hunting and butchering of wild nonhuman primates in the early 1900s likely led to the introduction of simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV) into humans, giving rise to our modern-day HIV pandemic. So logically, activities that bring us into close contact with wildlife, especially behaviors that lead to direct contact with the blood or other fluids from an animal, enhance the risk of infection with a virus of animal origin. Accordingly, the hunting of tropical wild game, including monkeys, gorillas, chimpanzees, porcupines, bats, rodents, and other animals (often known as “bushmeat”) and the assembling and sale of live animals for consumption in “wet markets” enhance the threat of emergence of new viruses. These practices are more common in places like Central Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Amazon Basin. This, and the higher wildlife diversity in these areas, among a variety of other factors, lead these areas to have a higher risk for virus emergence. It is important to note that bushmeat in many areas remains a principal source of protein, and is often the only source, so it is not constructive to put responsibility on individuals who lack alternate choices to reduce global risk – a multifaceted coordinated approach needs to be employed. Bushmeat hunters and individuals who work at wet markets have been important allies for studying emerging disease.

Since 2010, you have worked on Emerging Pandemic Threat Program - PREDICT.” USAID launched this program to aggressively preempt or combat diseases that could spark future pandemics, targeting “hot spots” including the Congo Basin of East and Central Africa, the Mekong region of Southeast Asia, and the Gangetic Plain of South Asia. Tell us about this program and your involvement in it.
Emerging infectious diseases place a substantial burden on human health and global economy. The global impact of new emergent diseases, including HIV/AIDS, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), avian influenza, and the pandemic H1N1 influenza virus, serve as prominent reminders of how vulnerable our increasingly interconnected world is. The speed with which these diseases can emerge and spread presents serious public health, economic, political, and social concerns. 

Conventional approaches to epidemic control have tended to be reactive. However, the explosive growth of human population, dramatic changes in land use, and global trade and travel have made a shift toward a proactive, predictive approach essential. In other words, we used to be able to rely on the great distances between us to protect us from new, potentially deadly, infectious diseases emerging in faraway places like Central Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Amazon Basin. Now a sick individual from a small village in Cameroon, using new roads (often built by lumber companies), can be in the capital city in a matter of hours; within another 8 hours that same individual could arrive in Paris, and from there be almost anywhere in the world in about 24 hours.

Thus there is a need to develop comprehensive disease detection and response capacities, particularly in those geographic areas where disease threats are likely to emerge. The U.S. agency that we work with, USAID, recognized this need and launched the Emerging Pandemic Threats (EPT) program four years ago to aggressively preempt or combat diseases that could spark future pandemics. The aim of the PREDICT project (part of the EPT program) is to prevent, detect, and rapidly respond to the spillover of novel infectious pathogens from wildlife to humans. The approach brings together experts from multiple specialties, including wildlife ecology, epidemiology, genetics, virology, informatics, and veterinary medicine, all focused on building a global early warning system for emerging diseases that move between wildlife and people. The basic idea is to set up “listening posts” in areas of the world where emergence of new viruses is more likely. Essentially, these listening posts seek to detect new viruses, before or soon after they infect humans, by testing individuals with elevated risk as well as the wildlife with which they come in contact. My role in this endeavor is to build capacity within laboratories in “hot zone” regions to collect human and wildlife samples, which are analyzed to identify known and new viruses. As part of this, I travel extensively to Southeast Asia and Central Africa. 

What inspired you to go into virology and the global effort to combat epidemics?
I became interested in the nature of living things at a young age – biology always fascinated me. My interest in biology grew during high school and college. At 20, I circumnavigated the globe, and I discovered the vivid cultures and rich aesthetic beauty of diverse landscapes, in tandem with suffering caused by diseases such as dengue and malaria, whose burdens were worsened by health care that was inaccessible or inadequate. This sparked a passion in me for exploration and a yearning to orient my career in a way that could help people. Soon after graduating from college, I was given the opportunity to work with a dynamic group of scientists at the Centers for Disease Control, and a path merging my interests in science, travel, and service came into focus. My trajectory since then has been guided by a desire to minimize the impact of infectious diseases and a genuine enchantment in the mysteries presented by science.

In terms of mass pandemics or epidemics, what fiction (or science-fiction) book most mirrors reality? 
A while ago I read the book The Cobra Event by Richard Preston, because at the time it was rumored that President Clinton was sufficiently impressed by the terrorist scenarios described in the book that he asked for closer study of the risk and suggested more funding for research into bioterror threats. I found it to be relatively realistic and thoroughly entertaining, perhaps because I could relate to the protagonist, a young infectious disease scientist. 

If we shift medium, I was also impressed by how the movie “Contagion” took the time to make the scenario as lifelike as entertainment allowed. They did not dramatically distort reality but did a pretty good job conveying the risks that we face from emerging viruses. The virus profiled in “Contagion” is based on one of the real viruses I study – Nipah virus, which originated in Malaysian fruit bats, spread to domestic pigs, and then caused an outbreak of neurological and respiratory disease in humans. The obvious difference is that the fictional virus, although taking a similar indirect and nefarious path into humans, spreads rapidly between humans with enormous consequences for the global human population.