Deep in the thicket of west Africa, on a bamboo bridge strung over raging waters, Erica Ollmann Saphire groped through the dark toward a village where pestilence can snuff out life with ruthless efficiency.
She was looking for rodents. The Scripps Research Institute biologist wanted to know how and where her enemy spreads viral hemorrhagic fever: things like Ebola and Lassa, diseases that can kill. Soon, she got what she came for. Standing in a hut, Saphire looked low and saw holes that vermin had burrowed close to where people sleep. Mice and rats were on a hunt for food.
"I already knew that the virus spreads," Saphire said on a recent morning, recalling her 6,700-mile trip to Sierra Leone. "I went because I might learn something about where the virus is, how it changes, something that would help me later."
Awe crept into her voice: "The number and variety and changeability in viruses is almost unknowable. They're outpacing us, and we cannot fight them without the best minds and best technologies."