You have no doubt already heard about emerging viruses. The international media regularly informs us about viruses raging across the world, for instance Zika, Ebola and dengue. But where do they come from? Mosquitoes, bats, rodents and primates carry viruses, and when humans share an area with these species, they are exposed to various infectious risks. To shed light on this situation, known as zoonotic pre-emergence, Victor Narat from the Medical Anthropology and Environment Research Group, set off to investigate in the field.
A multidisciplinary project
Victor, a qualified veterinarian and large primate specialist, joined the Institut Pasteur for the Shapes* project. His director, Tamara Giles-Vernick, Head of the Medical Anthropology and Environment Research Group in the Epidemiology of Emerging Diseases Unit, is an anthropologist and historian who has specialized in Africa for over 30 years now. Together, thanks to their multidisciplinary knowledge, they are conducting an ambitious project to collect information about interactions between humans and apes in their natural habitat. This project aims to gather and cross-reference geographical, historical, anthropological and also biological data to identify the reasons for disease emergence in a given area.
In the field
Over the last two years, Victor has traveled back and forth to a small village in the Cameroonian forest, where humans live near or far from great apes, such as gorillas or chimpanzees. A vast survey has been conducted in collaboration with the Pasteur Center in Cameroon. Victor has adopted a method that directly involves local populations and he asks them to take an active part in regular ecology surveys for example. His approach also includes a questionnaire on their daily life. These meetings enable him to record the frequency with which villagers come into contact with animals, whether they hunt and how often, and what types of meat are sold at the market, etc.
Biological samples (stools) are also collected from humans and animals. They will be useful for identifying which microorganisms are shared (and which are not) between species, by analyzing the gut microbiome of humans and great apes.
"This project is unique. It enables us to assess the different types of exposure between humans and primates and therefore shed light on the mechanisms that can lead to zoonotic emergence."
The project is coming to an end but several months of work are still required to exploit all the data.
Our researcher, who has a passion for primates and their habitat, has just found out that a new project with Tamara Giles-Vernick named Microtone**, submitted to the Inception*** program, has secured funding from 2018 through to 2020. So Victor will return to the Democratic Republic of the Congo that he knows so well having worked there for 10 years. This new study will also look at humans, animals and their environment but this time a greater range of species will be observed, such as bats, antelopes, rodents and of course, primates!
2006-2011: Veterinary studies at the National Veterinary School of Nantes (France)
Veterinary thesis: Resilience of bonobos to habitat fragmentation and anthropic pressure
2008: First trip to the Democratic Republic of the Congo
2011-2014: PhD thesis: Interactions between bonobos, habitats and humans. Habituation, ecology, health and conservation
Since 2016: Postdoctoral fellowship in the Medical Anthropology and Environment Research Group directed by Tamara Giles-Vernick, part of the Epidemiology of Emerging Diseases Unit headed by Arnaud Fontanet.
*The Shapes project, a multi-disciplinary study of disease emergence: social sciences perspectives on cross-species contacts in Equatorial Africa, is funded by the French National Research Agency in partnership with Saint-Louis hospital, The City University of New York and the Pasteur Center in Cameroon.
** The Microtone project: viruses and bacteria circulating between humans and domestic and wild animals in an ecotone in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
***The Inception project: Institut Convergence for the study of Emergence of Pathology Through Individuals and Populations.