David Quammen: Pandemics are inevitable and costly

An interview with David Quammen, author of “Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic”.

Published : Apr 19, 2020 07:00 IST

David Quammen.

David Quammen.

The American writer and journalist David Quammen has published 17 books on varied subjects, including science and travel, and contributes regularly to National Geographic magazine. In his 2012 book, Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic , he predicted that the next big pandemic would “almost certainly be a virus that spills over from wildlife to humans”. Spillover , which went on to win several international awards, is a mix of lively reportage and epidemiological sleuthing from zoonotic hotspots around the world. Quammen’s informed prediction has come true as investigations so far have identified the origins of the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, to a seafood and live animal market in Wuhan city in Hubei province of China. While the animal host of the virus is still being traced, epidemiological detective work until date points to horseshoe bats and pangolins.

In a fascinating chapter in Spillover where Quammen reported about the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic of 2003, which is also caused by a virus in the family of coronaviruses (SARS-CoV), he wrote: “The much darker story remains to be told, probably not about this virus but about another. When the Next Big One comes, we can guess, it will likely conform to the same perverse pattern, high infectivity preceding notable symptoms. That will help it to move through cities and airports like an angel of death.” His statement was prescient. COVID-19 disease with asymptomatic or flu-like symptoms, is the “Next Big One”. The incubation period ranges from two to fourteen days, meaning that a person who has COVID-19 could continue to infect other people without displaying any acute symptoms of the virus itself.

Quammen strongly believes that it is disruptive human behaviour that sets these animal pathogens loose to wreak havoc among humans. He writes in Spillover : “Human-caused ecological pressures and disruptions are bringing animal pathogens ever more into contact with human populations, while human technology and behaviour are spreading these pathogens ever more widely and quickly.”

Excerpts from David Quammen’s email interview with Frontline :

While introducing your 2012 book “Spillover” on your website, you wrote: “The next big and murderous human pandemic, the one that kills us in millions, will be caused by a new disease…. Odds are that the killer pathogen—most likely a virus—will spill over into humans from a non-human animal.” What led you to predict that the next pandemic would be a zoonotic disease way back in 2012 itself?

What led me to predict a pandemic caused by a zoonosis—that is, an animal infection passing into humans—was the years I spent listening carefully to, and travelling in the field with, the devoted, brave scientists who study this phenomenon. All wild animals carry viruses, and generally those are unique viruses, few of which we’ve never seen in humans. But some of them are capable of infecting a human, replicating in that human, and passing on from human to human. When we come in close contact with wild animals—by destroying their habitats, catching them live, killing them for food—we expose ourselves to those viruses. It’s happening all over the planet every day. So it’s inevitable that some of those viruses will take hold in humans, and that occasionally one will prove so capably adapted to humans that it will spread around the world, making millions of people sick, killing many. And here we are.

How do these zoonotic viruses jump from animals to humans or how does the “spillover” happen?

“Spillover” is the term for the moment when a disease agent—say, a virus—passes from one kind of host into another. As we think of it, [it is the] passing from a non-human animal, in which it has lived quietly, into a human, in which it may explode. These viruses move from their natural animal hosts into humans because we humans invite them to do that, give them the opportunity to do that, by disrupting diverse natural ecosystems and the wild animals that live within those ecosystems. If we cut down a forest, establish a timber camp, capture or kill the wild animals native to that ecosystem, we are offering ourselves as alternative hosts for the many kinds of virus those animals carry. Sometimes a virus seizes that opportunity and becomes a human virus—maybe a minor sort of infection, and maybe a murderous global pandemic. In either case, it’s not the bats or the viruses that bear responsibility. It’s us.

Through the course of research for “Spillover”, you visited “wet markets” in China. Can you describe what a “wet market” is and why are they potent incubators for zoonotic viruses?

A “wet market” in China, during the intermittent (but lengthy) periods in which regulations have not suppressed such trade, is a chaotic place in which wild animals, in cages or tanks, are held to be sold for food, amid many other kinds of wild animals, and living domestic animals, and butchered meat, and seafood. There might be pangolins, civets, bamboo rats, raccoon dogs, turtles, tortoises, snakes, frogs, wild birds of many kinds, as well as chickens and ducks and pigs and dead fish, all in proximity to one another, with blood and water and viruses flowing freely from one animal, one carcass, one pair of human hands, to another.

If I may ask a broad philosophical question, is mankind’s hubris in terms of its engagement with nature responsible for this pandemic?

Yes. We consider earth to be a repository of resources awaiting exploitation for our “needs,” our convenience, our pleasure. We forget that we are part of the natural world, not some class of beings above it. That’s hubris. Greek tragedy will tell you where hubris leads.

The nature of zoonotic diseases is such that they can never be eradicated unless we adopt drastic measures like wiping out an entire species of animal or destroying vast swathes of forest. Since that is not possible, what is the permanent solution to the spread of zoonotic diseases?

Is there a “permanent solution” to the problem of zoonotic diseases? I doubt it—certainly not so long as we humans are as abundant and hungry and powerful as we are today. Th e temporary solutions are forbearance, reduced consumption, reduced human population, and vaccines and therapies. Science is crucial. Evolutionary biology is crucial. If you don’t believe in evolution (as some people in my country do not, including some leaders), then don’t bother going to a doctor or asking for antibiotics when you have a bacterial infection, because evolutionary biology is crucial to modern medicine.

Even as we are in the midst of this raging pandemic that is expanding its footprint on a daily basis, what are the lessons it offers and how do we prepare for another potential outbreak?

From this pandemic, we can learn that pandemics are inevitable and very costly. We can prepare for another by committing the massive resources to science and public health that will help us be ready, three years or five years or ten years from now, for another such event as COVID-19. That commitment of resources will be expensive—and therefore unpopular among cynical politicians—but much less expensive than COVID-19.

On March 24, the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, declared a complete lockdown of the country, meaning that only essential services would be allowed to function, with almost the entire population of the country confined to their homes. This has put a tremendous strain on the economically weaker sections of the population. Considering that there were only 536 cases with 10 confirmed deaths until then in a country of more than 1.3 billion, was this a prudent measure?

Probably yes. But Modi has got to make provisions for those who have least, those who suffer most, the labouring people, the homeless, the desperately poor. Otherwise it’s brutal injustice, with the poor people paying the biggest costs for an effort to prevent disease and death among everyone. The poor have been paying those costs for centuries, and it’s time for that to stop. No one will be safe from this virus in India until everyone is safe. Likewise across the world. No one will be really healthy and secure until everyone is fed and housed.

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