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Scientists pal up on pandemic prevention program

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

More than a decade ago, a pair of scientists - one in Nigeria and one here in the U.S. - noticed a worrying trend. A deadly disease would emerge in West Africa, but it often went unnoticed or misdiagnosed. That could have pandemic-level consequences. So these two scientists set out to do something about it. NPR's Ari Daniel has their story.

ARI DANIEL, BYLINE: In the summer of 2014 at the airport in Lagos, Nigeria, a passenger landed with a fever. Neighboring countries were in the middle of what would become the largest Ebola outbreak ever. So health workers were deeply concerned when this guy arrived in a city of 20-plus million.

PARDIS SEBETI: We were in the middle of tragedy on the precipice of a cataclysm. It could be unstoppable.

DANIEL: Pardis Sabeti is a computational geneticist at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Mass. The man was tested for Ebola by doctors at a public laboratory in Lagos, but the results were inconclusive which, unfortunately, is all too common.

CHRISTIAN HAPPI: If you can't diagnose a disease, it's going to be very difficult to manage it.

DANIEL: This is Christian Happi. He's a molecular biologist at Redeemer's University in Nigeria, and he and Sabeti are an infectious-disease-fighting duo.

HAPPI: She's what I call my better academic half.

SABETI: I'd also call him my ride or die, and I just know he will always have my back.

DANIEL: The pair met while studying malaria 25 years ago. They grew close while working together on a Lassa fever project in Sierra Leone. Then came late 2013 when people began falling ill in Guinea in West Africa. It'd start with a fever and could end with death. It took months before health authorities were sufficiently concerned to take blood samples.

HAPPI: The sample had to be shipped to France, and it took another three weeks for them to have the result.

DANIEL: That result - Ebola. But during those weeks and months, the virus had been spreading and mutating and killing. It barreled into Sierra Leone pummeling the hospital where the pair had close collaborators.

SABETI: It spread like wildfire through the clinical staff. So I was reeling at that point.

DANIEL: In part, she says, because so much of this suffering was avoidable. Sabeti and Happi considered an inspiring possibility - what if the active monitoring of viruses like this one could happen on the ground in Africa by Africans?

HAPPI: We really thought that - OK, now it is time to empower the local health care workers to detect these pathogens that are circulating, to do things by themselves.

DANIEL: So the two co-founded ACEGID, the African Centre of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases in Nigeria. Happi became its director, and in a stroke of good fortune, it came into being in early 2014 just as the Ebola outbreak was unfolding. So when the test of that feverish passenger in Lagos came back inconclusive, the authorities rang up Happi. Maybe ACEGID could diagnose the man's disease.

HAPPI: I knew I was going to be dealing with something very dangerous. And I remember telling my wife, if I don't make it back, take care of the children. And she told me, go. God is going to be with you.

DANIEL: Happi drove to the lab, put on the PPE that Sabeti had sent over for a situation like this. Just before dawn, they had their answer.

HAPPI: We were able to see that - oh, my God, this is Ebola.

DANIEL: Happi advised officials on how to implement contact tracing, isolation and ongoing monitoring. In Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, more than 11,000 people died of Ebola. But in Nigeria, there were only eight deaths, largely because Happi and ACEGID were able to diagnose Ebola there - not in weeks or days, but in hours. This is ACEGID's war plan for thwarting disease in the region. Let's say someone shows up at a clinic or hospital with a fever.

HAPPI: But you don't know whether it's malaria fever or it's Ebola fever or it's yellow fever. Everything is fever.

DANIEL: ACEGID has a battery of tests for each of these and more. But if those don't return any hits, then they sequence the genetic material of the unknown pathogen, and that gives them a way to detect this new thing.

SABETI: You can just immediately that day be off to the races with a working diagnostic.

DANIEL: Which can then be pushed out to health facilities to track the outbreak and take measures to contain it. ACEGID's now empowering others to do this work themselves. They've trained over 1,500 people from 48 African countries.

SABETI: The most profound thing that ACEGID is doing is creating a continent of people who are classmates in the same enterprise together. That kind of coordination, that kind of camaraderie - that is the only way we're going to really stop pandemics.

DANIEL: This spring, ACEGID will move into a new state-of-the-art building on the Redeemer's University campus. At the opening ceremony, they'll play a new mix of this song. Sabeti, who's also a rock musician, by the way, wrote the lyrics in the middle of the Ebola outbreak back in 2014, right after she and Happi lost all those dear colleagues and friends.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE TRUTH")

THOUSAND DAYS: (Singing) Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah...

HAPPI: When I listened to this, I was, like, wow. I can tell you I had tears in my eyes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE TRUTH")

THOUSAND DAYS: (Singing) A lifetime that we write, and we laugh, and we cry, and we pray, and we are love...

DANIEL: Sabeti remembers when those words came to her - a tumble of pain and purpose and family.

SABETI: We're in this fight together. Like, that's all I know. Like, that's all I know - right? - is that we are in this fight together.

DANIEL: Ari Daniel, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE TRUTH")

THOUSAND DAYS: (Singing) The hunger will never die, and I'm here in this fight, always. Ah, ah, ah, ah. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Ah, ah, ah, ah. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ari Daniel is a reporter for NPR's Science desk where he covers global health and development.