Though a couple of recent predictions about the end of life as we know it have missed the mark, readers concerned about the future would do well to pick up award-winning science journalist David Quammen’s latest book.
In Spillover, Quammen travels the world exploring how zoonotic pathogens — the sort that jump from animals to infect humans — are already changing our world. He makes a compelling case that human population growth has made a global pandemic inevitable.
Author of The Reluctant Mr. Darwin and Song of the Dodo, Quammen doesn’t tell this tale in alarmist tones. But his conclusion is alarming. What if we, the humans, are an outbreak destined to be taken down a peg or two — or even a couple billion pegs — by a virus that our own success as a species made inevitable? It’s a sobering thought, and Quammen makes a good case for why it might happen.
History may be on his side. The spillover events of the title, when pathogens such as viruses and bacteria move from infecting bats or chimpanzees to infecting people, have been devastating in the past. The 1918-1919 Spanish Flu epidemic was one example, a virus that jumped from a reservoir animal (birds) to a superspreader (pigs) and then to humans, killing millions. In our lifetime, AIDS is the great zoonotic killer, and Quammen tracks it closely, noting the misconceptions that have become accepted wisdom and explaining what scientists believe really happened.
Of particular interest to South Florida readers is his explanation of why the AIDs epidemic was so devastating in Haiti. There’s a fascinating historical and political reason AIDs was able to jump from Africa to Haiti. And while he doesn’t prove the case, he suggests there might be a fascinating historical reason that Haiti was ravaged by the virus so quickly. Not surprisingly, the medical establishment may have had a hand in that spread.
Spillover raises many fascinating points, backed up with Quammen’s meticulous research over years and stretching across continents. He is gentle with journalists who have gone before him, particularly with Randy Shilts, author of And The Band Played On. Shilts was one of the first journalists who tried to figure out where AIDs came from. He died in 1994, before much of the groundbreaking work into the origins of AIDs had been done.
Quammen is less gentle with Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone, noting repeatedly that ebola victims’ bodies don’t actually explode in bloody hemorrhages.
Much of Spillover updates the work of Laurie Garrett in The Coming Plague, and like Garrett’s work, Spillover often reads like a detective story or a travelogue. Quammen tags along with his wonky epidemiologist characters on their swashbuckling searches for answers behind outbreaks. He’s on a roof catching bats in Bangladesh with a veterinary disease ecologist. He’s tracing the path of another vet across Australia. He’s floating down a river and trying to avoid paying bribes to local officials in Cameroon to find the true Ground Zero of AIDS. He’s looking for gorillas in a meadow in Gabon.
Peppered throughout the book are fascinating tales of scientific discovery and gruesome but gripping descriptions of what some of the world’s worst viruses do. Quammen also explains the basic biology of viruses, particularly the retroviruses and the viruses that have only RNA, no DNA. They’re the scary ones.
All of this leads up to Quammen’s unsettling conclusion: We humans may be an outbreak, like locusts, covering the earth, the most successful species on the planet. And we are changing that planet and coming into contact with its other residents, from civet cats to rhesus monkeys, in new ways that may lay the groundwork for a new virus to jump into our population.
“And here’s the thing about outbreaks: They end. In some cases they end after many years, in other cases they end rather soon. In some cases they end gradually, in other cases they end with a crash,” he writes. “In certain cases, even, they end and recur and end again, as though following a regular schedule.”
Quammen concludes the book with a call to support the scientists who are on the lookout for the Next Big One, the next zoonotic virus that could ravage our population. Seems more useful than worrying about the Mayan calendar.
Susannah Nesmith is a writer in Miami.