Trip Wire: Q&A with Epidemiologist Stephen Morse

Stephen Morse is in the vanguard of an effort to predict the next pandemic — but says prevention is an elusive goal.

Quick with a smile and even faster with a pun, native New Yorker Stephen Morse doesn’t seem like a man preoccupied with mass killers. 

As a boy he toyed with the idea of becoming an Egyptologist or herpetologist — “I spent a lot of time trying to catch snakes in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey” — but eventually he chose microbiology. A lifelong lover of solving puzzles, Morse gravitated toward some of the most mysterious microbes: killer viruses that seemed to strike from out of nowhere, sometimes reaching pandemic levels.

“I like intellectual challenges — that’s probably my greatest weakness,” jokes Morse, sitting in his office at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, where books, often two or three rows deep, are crammed floor to ceiling.

Morse is credited with creating the term emerging infectious diseases in the late 1980s to explain viruses that can exist for years in an animal host without causing illness. The virus “emerges” when human activity, such as habitat destruction, causes host-human contact. With the right conditions — including transmissibility — the virus infects and spreads through our species, sometimes globally.

More than 20 years after he began trying to solve one of epidemiology’s biggest challenges — understanding why pandemics happen and how we can stop them — Morse serves as the director of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s worldwide PREDICT project, which has been part of the organization’s Emerging Pandemic Threat (EPT) initiative since 2009. The program is multidimensional, from cutting-edge mathematical virus modeling to field educators teaching hunters how to reduce risk of infection from contaminated game.

On a humid New York summer day, in between fielding calls from the State Department and other eminent virologists about expanding PREDICT’s efforts into new countries, Morse explained to Discover why preventing pandemic remains an elusive goal.

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