Spillover – Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen – Nonfiction (2012)
We are in information overload. For the past six months since the pandemic started, the world has turned upside down. Or so it seems for a lot of us. Schedules changed, businesses closed, jobs were lost. But the world continued. Protests and valid questions on the role of police began. The issues of how to rebuild the economy in the best way possible continues.
So why did I choose this book? I already read a pandemic- esq novel, so why continue down this route instead of something more fantastical or fictional?
It’s important to learn. It is important to pay attention, to research, and to understand something that has affected almost every single person on this planet. You, like me, have probably been inundated with everyone’s opinion from masks, to vaccines, and to treatments and medicine from every cousin, high school friend, and co-worker on Facebook and Twitter. You are probably sick of the constant discussion on the 5 o’clock news about coronavirus. You don’t want to hear about it anymore, but you have to.
Spillover discusses and explains zoonotic viruses. A zoonotic virus is a disease that has transferred from an animal to a human. It has made the jump and found a hospitable place to live inside a human. It could be benign or cause only mild symptoms – a fever or a cough that may eventually go away but causes little damage to the human host. It may not be able to transmit easily between person to person.
Why do strange new diseases emerge when they do, where they do, as they do, and not elsewhere, other ways, at other times? Is it happening more now than in the past? If so, how are we bringing these afflictions upon ourselves? Can we reverse or mitigate the trends before we’re hit with another devastating pandemic? Can we do that without inflicting fearful punishment on all those other kinds of infected animals with which we share the planet? The dynamics are complicated, the possibilities are many, and while science does its work slowly, we all want a fast response to the biggest question: What sort of nasty bug, with what unforeseen origins and what inexorable impacts, will emerge next?
Or it could be AIDS/HIV. Or influenza. Or COVID-19. Spillover is technical but Quammen writes the book more like a detective novel. He explains the intricacies of a virus and an infectious disease, the science behind it and the unpredictability that scientists and epidemiologists have tried to overcome to help prevent the Next Big One. He also provides a rich history of some diseases you have heard of, like Ebola. He also explains the fascinating origins of not so commonly known viruses, like Marbug, Hendra, and Nipah.
Clearly, the Next Big One has happened. But Spillover, rather than creating dread or fear, enlightened me. It helped me understand this virus, and zoonotic diseases in general, and to be able to read news reports and comments from the so-called experts with a more discerning eye.
The biggest thing I have learned from this book: we humans have the ability to handle zoonotic viruses when they emerge. But we also have helped the increase trend of spillover. We have created an avenue, a potential faster avenue, for exposure to these chances of transmission from animals to occur. That part is scary. There are thousands and thousands of animals that we have never discovered. They live deep in the ocean, swamps, and jungles. Humans have never interacted with them. But with each new interaction, we create a chance for the spillover to happen. We create the chance for the Next Big One to occur. We must be cognizant of that and do better, for ourselves and the animals and wider environment around us.
David Quammen is the author of multiple nonfiction and fiction books. He earned the John Burroughs Medal for nature writing, an Academy Award in Literature, and is a three time winner of the National Magazine Award. He is a contributing writer for National Geographic. Spillover was a finalist for the Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction.
That’s the salubrious thing about zoonotic diseases: They remind us, as St. Francis did, that we humans are inseparable from the natural world. In fact, there is no “natural world,” it’s a bad and artificial phrase. There is only the world. Humankind is part of that world, as are ebolabviruses, as are the influenzas and the HIVs, as are Nipah and Hendra and SARS, as are chimpanzees and bats and palm civets and bar-headed geese, as is the next murderous virus – the one we haven’t detected yet.
Lover of the written word.