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Launched in 1999, Wolfe's Cameroon project aims to discover viruses that, like HIV, originate in wild animals and then cross over to infect humans. Known as zoonoses, such pathogens constitute an estimated three- quarters of all emerging human diseases. The list of animal-to-human invaders includes malaria, smallpox, West Nile, Ebola, SARS, and — the threat of the moment — avian influenza. Despite these killers and the near- certainty that new devastating zoonoses will emerge, little is understood about either the range of potential pathogens in the animal kingdom or the way they enter and spread among humans. "We are at the absolute infancy" of understanding the origins of viruses like HIV, says Beatrice Hahn, a professor of medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham who last year led the team that traced the origin of HIV to Cameroon.

We do know that it takes three steps for a zoonotic agent to become an HIV or a smallpox. First, a human must be exposed to the virus. Then, the virus must either be virulent or become so through mutation. Finally the virus must be able to move from human to human and not kill its host so quickly that it doesn't have time to spread. Each of these steps is a complex biological process, and each presents opportunities to ward off a pandemic. Traditionally, however, the study of infectious disease has focused on containing and tracing outbreaks — say, Ebola in Africa, or HIV around the globe — after a zoonosis has started spreading. (Occasionally, as with avian flu, scientists have identified a potentially dangerous virus one stage before human-to-human transmission.) When it comes to searching for new or unknown viruses among wild animals — and discovering the process through which they cross to humans — few scientists have ventured into the forest.
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