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David Quammen: How Animal-Borne Infections Spill Over To Humans


The novel coronavirus originated in Wuhan, China, where it's thought to have jumped from wild animals to humans maybe in open-air markets. David Quammen warned about exactly such a potential outbreak in his 2012 book "Spillover: Animal Infections And The Next Human Pandemic." David Quammen joins us now from his home in Bozeman, Mont. David, thanks so much for being with us.

DAVID QUAMMEN: Thank you, Scott. Good to be with you in this weird and difficult time.

SIMON: Yeah, well said. So you were not surprised?

QUAMMEN: I was surprised by one thing. I was surprised by how unprepared we were. The idea that a new virus, a coronavirus, might come to us from a wild animal, probably a bat, maybe in a wet market, oh, for instance, in China, none of that was surprising. That was all what sort of a composite of the potential events that scientists were telling me 10 years ago when I was researching my book.

SIMON: We've seen this happen, obviously, in - over the past generation - AIDS, West Nile fever, SARS, Ebola. Why does wild-animal-to-human transmission happen? How does it happen?

QUAMMEN: Well, it happens by human contact with wild animals. Every species of wild animal living in our diverse ecosystems and our remnants of ecosystems carries viruses. And many of them carry a lot of viruses of which most are unique to the human species. So as we come in contact with those animals - hunting them, cutting down their habitat, building timber camps, building mining camps in those diverse ecosystems - we offer ourselves as an alternative host to them. If a species is becoming endangered and going extinct, the viruses in that have a chance to transfer to a new host. They will seize that opportunity. And if they transfer to humans and are able to replicate and spread, then they have, as one scientist has told me, they've seized the golden ticket. They're now in the world's most abundant large animal, and they've achieved great evolutionary success. This virus now has achieved great evolutionary success.

SIMON: Is it becoming more frequent?

QUAMMEN: It does seem to becoming more frequent. There are some metrics on that. Since 1960, there have been a number of these spillovers of pathogens, usually viruses, from wild animals into humans. As we become more abundant, we're consuming more. We're travelling more. We're disturbing wild ecosystems, coming into contact with wild animals more. And so, yes, these spillovers are becoming more abundant. And when they happen, they're - some of them are becoming more catastrophic.

SIMON: And what do you make of efforts around the world to try and control the outbreak?

QUAMMEN: Well, as I said, the most surprising thing was that most of the world was not prepared. Singapore seems to have been pretty well prepared. Hong Kong did a pretty good job early on. South Korea has responded well; Japan fairly well. Why? Well, for one thing, Singapore seems to have heeded the lesson of SARS. Another coronavirus, 2003, hit a few cities around the world, hit Singapore hard. And Singapore seems to have realized that preparedness was called for because another one of these things would happen. They heeded the lesson of SARS from 2003, and we did not.

SIMON: And what are those lessons that maybe we haven't learned yet?

QUAMMEN: Well, we need technology that will give us fast and accurate diagnostic kits so that, for instance, a person could be tested for a new virus with a cheek swab while going through airport security screening in the time that it takes to, you know, take off your shoes and put your computer on the belt, come out the other side. Ten years ago, a scientist was telling me he was working to develop that sort of testing, but we don't have it yet. We need that badly. And then we need big investments in public health - excess capacity for our hospitals. But excess capacity is expensive, but politicians are reluctant to invest in preparedness against something that might or might not happen on their watch.

SIMON: And that, of course, introduces the question - is there a way to to prevent another pandemic - or I'll just call it the next pandemic - or is it just a matter of being better prepared to deal with it?

QUAMMEN: It's probably not possible to prevent further spillovers, a virus - a new virus, a dangerous virus spilling over from a non-human animal into a human. But can we prevent that from turning into an epidemic, into a pandemic? Yes, we can. If we invest in science and technology, we can do that. We have wonderful scientists in most of the countries of the world that can help us know what viruses are out there. We could have fast response when there is a spillover, when there is a cluster of cases so that that cluster could be contained quickly. It's not necessary that every spillover turn into an epidemic or a pandemic. We can prevent that if we have the will and invest in it.

SIMON: David Quammen, thank you so much for speaking with us. Take care.

QUAMMEN: Take care to you, too, Scott, and yours and everybody. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.