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Project August 27, 2021

Virus Hunters: Researchers Work to Confront Diseases Emerging from the Amazon


Rainforests are the most likely places for emerging diseases to leap to humans from their native hosts and cause widespread infection. As we’ve learned, COVID-19 circulated naturally in rainforest animals before somehow infecting humans and spreading around the world. The Amazon, the planet's largest rainforest, harbors a huge menagerie of animal viruses that researchers say could ignite new epidemics. Spurred by Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro administration, the Amazon is also facing a sharply increasing deforestation, raising the likelihood that people will be exposed to such diseases.

This project will employ a rare journalistic collaboration. Dado Galdieri, a Rio de Janeiro-based photojournalist, will travel to the Amazon, where he will take photos and conduct interviews. Due to the pandemic, journalist Daniel Grossman won’t join him in the field. But with interviews and online research, Grossman will write two stories.

Galdieri will report from Belem and Manaus. He’ll visit Dr. Felipe Gomes Naveca, who is one of the researchers who might first report a new virus emerging into humans. Naveca discovered a patient suffering from oropouche fever, a virus transmitted by midges, and a new phlebovirus, a disease transmitted by sand flies.

Galdieri will also join researchers studying animal viruses that may not yet have infected anyone. He’ll visit an archive of arboviruses (viruses transmitted by arthropods, such as mosquitos) at Belem’s Chagas Institute. He’ll join a biologist trapping and sampling bodily fluids from pied tamarins (a type of primate). He will also see a veterinarian who performs necropsies to catalog diseases in the organs of dead animals.

The reporting will demonstrate the importance of the painstaking work of discovering, cataloging, and studying the diseases that lurk in the Amazon and that might emerge from the rainforest. It will also describe the hazards of encroaching on the forest and explain the importance of keeping it intact.