Spillover – Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen

Reviewed by Andrew Rowan –  This book by science writer and journalist David Quammen about pandemic threats to humans arising from animal pathogens (zoonotic) was first published in 2012, eight years before the current coronavirus pandemic that appears to come from bats, possibly with a contribution from pangolins. Spending quite a bit of time these days reading books, I decided that it was time to read Spillover. I also have harbored a hope to someday meet David Quammen since we were both privileged to be able to spend time studying at Oxford. So, I bought a Kindle version of Spillover and started to read – all 522 pages of text plus an additional 68 pages of acknowledgments, notes, references, and index.
It is a gripping and sobering read. It is gripping because Quammen takes you seamlessly through many different human adventures with different zoonotic bugs (those that come from animals to infect humans) introducing all sorts of interesting characters along the way. He also introduces one to extra-ordinary treks through different landscapes that he has made, glossing over the heat, the pests, the suspect foods and the negotiations with many different bureaucrats so that his journey through Darkest Africa seemed little more dangerous than a stroll through Central Park in New York. I admired his sangfroid in the face of all the threats of his exotic trips (“don’t look up because you might get a mouthful or eyeful of bat urine” was one warning by a guide), but I also envied his ability to explain complex science in plain English and entertainingly!
The book is sobering because of the subject. Throughout the 522 pages, one comes across numerous references to the Next Big One (NBO) – namely, a new, emergent zoonotic bug that has the ability to pass easily from human to human, that does so before most victims feel ill, and that has the capacity to kill a significant proportion of those it infects. Today, a pathogen that infects half the human race and kills one percent of those it infects would end up killing 38 million people – almost as many as the estimated death toll from the 1918-1919 Spanish flu. Covid19 appears to have this sort of potential.
Nonetheless, I ended the book feeling hopeful. Quammen interviews many scientists who are studying such emergent pathogens and who are providing insight and ideas about how humans might prevent or mitigate the NBO. In the case of Covid19, there are now over 70 new vaccine initiatives and at least three are undergoing trials in humans. This is a remarkable record for a new infectious agent that was unknown just a few months ago. Now we can just hope that our governments, both national and local, can act with sufficient speed and insight and that they will pay appropriate attention to those who know whereof they speak.
Spillover – Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen, published by, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 2012 (nominated a notable Book of the Year by the New York Times Book Review).

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