We had connected on a dating app, so I wanted to believe it was a date. Perhaps he saw it more as the sort of what-are-you-doing-here type of meetup that is always granted to two Americans who cross paths in the same far-flung place.
It was January of 2016. Myanmar had just opened up to the world after decades of extreme isolation. Foreigners were still a rare sight in the bustling capital Yangon.
Before I walked into the cafe to meet Marc, I remember seeing my reflection in a window and thinking that I could not do worse. My shoes had been stolen on the steps of a temple the previous day. I was robbed of my money shortly thereafter by someone pretending to be my friend. I was dripping with sweat, my hair ruffled, my face sunburnt, and my T-shirt and shorts were met by Marc’s full business suit.
He apologized for being over-dressed. He had just gotten out of a meeting with government officials; they only take him seriously if he dresses up, he explained. He was unquestionably handsome with soft features and an endearing face.
We established that we were both in Myanmar for the same reason: to do research. My research project was little more than an excuse for my university to pay me to travel. His project was a bit more ambitious.
He was studying pangolins, an adorable scaly anteater-like species hunted to the brink of extinction almost everywhere. As it happened, pangolins were my favorite animal, and I could barely contain my admiration for him as he explained his side hustle infiltrating Chinese smuggler networks as an undercover conservationist.
It wasn’t just about pangolins, though. It was also bats. Marc was spending long periods gathering samples from caves across Myanmar and testing them for pathogens.
But I did wonder what interest did USAID and the Smithsonian Institute, which funded and organized Marc’s mission, have in pangolins and bats? And what would motivate Marc, an esteemed wildlife veterinarian at the Smithsonian National Zoo, to commit to five years of isolation and discomfort knee-deep in bat feces in rural Myanmar?
“We’re trying to stop the next pandemic,” Marc said.
Both pangolins and bats were being harvested and trafficked to China en masse as bush meat for their alleged medicinal purposes in traditional Chinese medicine.
Bats carry zoonotic viruses that have the potential to jump from animal to human and spark an epidemic. USAID launched an initiative to identify the viruses in nature before they threaten us. Bats were the main target for testing, but Marc had another motive. Marc, like myself, had a soft spot for pangolins. If he could prove pangolins, the most trafficked mammal in the world, also carry threatening viruses, he could help save them from the brink of extinction.
During his five years in Myanmar, Marc identified six novel coronaviruses living in pangolins and bats. He was aware, before almost any of us, that a coronavirus pandemic could be triggered at any moment thanks to the rampant trafficking of these animals to wildlife markets in China. For him, the impending pandemic was not a matter of “if” but “when.”
After an hour or so of splendid conversation, Marc and I parted ways. I wished him luck on his research and boarded a train to Myanmar’s outlandish new capital, Naypyidaw, to meet contacts for my research. He went off to an elephant sanctuary in the countryside with a friend. We never crossed paths again, but we remain very supportive of each other on instagram.
In September of 2019, the Trump administration slashed funding to USAID. Marc’s project was discontinued. The very next month a novel coronavirus made the much-feared leap from what experts believe was either a bat or a pangolin to a human at a wildlife market in Wuhan, China.
The point is not that Marc found COVID-19 on a pangolin or that he would have if Trump didn’t slash the USAID budget. The next pandemic may not be one of the coronaviruses discovered by Marc, and it may not originate from wildlife in Myanmar. These things are impossible to predict.
For precisely this reason, we need more than Marc. We need an army of people like him to scour the globe in search of the next ticking time bomb – whether is is knee-deep in bat shit in a sweltering cave or on someone’s dinner plate in an urban wildlife market. It’s the sort of gritty thankless work that can prevent the type of cataclysm we now face without hardly anyone noticing or recognizing it. It is worth every penny.
USAID’s discontinued PREDICT project, to which Marc dedicated 5 years of his life, has gained peak currency amid the COVID-19 crisis. The Washington Post and the Elvis Duran show have both revisited Marc’s work in recent interviews. What may have once seemed like a rather niche project is, in hindsight, utterly indispensable.
Today, as we celebrate the overworked doctors and nurses laboring around the clock to save lives , let us remember there was another kind of hero in this story – one that will rarely receive credit. The first frontline wasn’t in a hospital but in a cave.