Why David Quammen Is Not Surprised

In 2012, science writer and Orion contributor David Quammen published Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic. The book charts the ecology and spread of zoonoses, diseases transmitted between animals and humans, and sounds the alarm for serious political and public health actions to prepare for future pandemics.

Well, here we are.

At present, we are experiencing one of the most disruptive global pandemics in history, with stark forecasts for any improvement. We reached out to Quammen for answers on why we weren’t prepared for this outbreak, whether there is any silver lining in this development, and what safety precautions he and his wife (and their pet python) recommend during indefinite lockdown.  

 

Why didn’t we see this coming?

The warnings were there. The scientists who work on these things knew that coronaviruses should be high on the watch list, because coronaviruses mutate often and therefore evolve quickly. (They belong to a group known as single-stranded RNA viruses, notorious for copying errors when they replicate, and for fast evolution.) I was told ten years ago: Beware of a new virus, maybe a coronavirus, emerging from a wild animal, maybe a bat. Those were the warnings I put into Spillover.

You published Spillover in 2012. Why weren’t measures taken since then to prevent something like COVID-19 from emerging and spreading?

Why did the warnings go unheeded? Because of money and politics and public indifference. The money for pandemic disease response becomes available only after the outbreak has begun. When the latest one goes away, there’s never enough money available to prepare for the next one. Politicians such as our lying president don’t want to admit that disaster could ever occur on their watch. 

What’s different about this new coronavirus than previous ones you’ve written about?

The nightmare scenario, going back ten years at least, has been this: It will be a new virus, probably from one of the fast-evolving families (especially those SS-RNA viruses), such as the coronaviruses, that comes from an animal, gets into humans, transmits well human-to-human, spreads by silent or cryptic transmission (meaning that infected people may feel fine for a few days and be walking around, riding the subway, going to work, but are meanwhile shedding the virus), and kills at a relatively high case fatality rate.

This outbreak ticks all those boxes. It is the nightmare scenario. If it spreads as widely and infects as many people as a seasonal flu, as it well might, it could kill twenty times as many people.

Our global economy and transportation apparatus seem to be at the core of COVID-19’s spread, and this sort of planetary rippling reminds us of all that we share as humans, as animals, as an intermingling whole. What positive outcomes, if any, might you see emerge from this outbreak? 

Correct: We are all connected, and this event reminds us of that in a gruesomely vivid way. Bats, monkeys, apes, pangolins, civets, people: We are all animals, living together on a single small planet, dependent not just upon one another but also on the ecosystems we inhabit. If this crisis makes us permanently aware of a few points, raises them in our attention and strengthens them in our hearts, it will have some silver lining. Those points are:

  1. Prepare for the worst, while hoping for the best.
  2. Zoonotic spillovers will keep coming, as long as we drag wild animals to us and split them open.
  3. A tropical forest, with its vast diversity of visible creatures and microbes, is like a beautiful old barn: knock it over with a bulldozer and viruses will rise in the air like dust.
  4. Leave bats, in particular, the hell alone. 

Are we worried enough? How much of our global panic should we actually attribute to it, versus to our collective state of anxiety, which has our hands always hovering just over the panic button?

We are worried enough but still not prepared enough. Pushing the panic button is useless. People sometimes ask me, when they know I have written about such outbreaks in the past and the inevitability that more would come: “How scared should we be?” Being scared is useless. Educate yourself about what can be done, both in the short term and the long term, and do it.

There’s a ton of noise out there, misinformation and politicization of the virus and its spread. Where do you turn for updates? 

I turn to the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Economist, and other sensible news outlets, as well as lots of other sources I find online or that are brought to my attention. When my wife Betsy (who is an impassioned conservationist and environmental historian) tells me of a dramatic new fact, first thing I ask is: What’s the source? I also read a lot of scientific articles in the journals.

How many times an hour are you washing your hands?

I wash my hands often, out of habit, but even more so now than usual.

You seem like the kind of guy who makes his own hand sanitizer.

Hand sanitizer? I don’t use that unless I’m in a public place where there’s no soap.

What’s the number one thing to do to remain healthy—physically and psychologically?

I feel sorry for my friends and contacts in New York, Washington, and elsewhere when I hear them say “I’m working from home.” But I’ve always worked from home. It’s not a big change for me. My wife and I, and our close, extended family here in Bozeman, Montana, are doing rigorous social distancing. I haven’t seen my father-in-law for two weeks, though he’s one of my best pals and lives just a few miles away. I’ve cancelled the gym and the dentist—inconveniencing dear people who provide services I value—for the foreseeable future. I take walks with the dogs and share dinners at home with Betsy. (All this is done, not mainly to protect ourselves but to protect others and to help flatten the curve of the case load—spread it out in time—so that our health-care system will be able to handle everybody who needs care.)

I take more walks. I drink a martini in the evening, listen to Albinoni’s Adagio for the 400th time, and read a good book. It’s just us here now, at home: Betsy and me, the two dogs, the cat, and the python. O

 

David Quammen has written fifteen books of fiction and nonfiction, and has published 200+ articles for National Geographic, The New York Times, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, and others. He’s a three-time recipient of the National Magazine Award and has been honored with an Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Read more on the authors website.

 

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Nicholas Triolo is Orion’s Digital Strategist and Online Editor.