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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.
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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.
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?
In terms of mass pandemics or epidemics, what fiction (or science-fiction) book most mirrors reality?
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.