David Quammen

David Quammen

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People worried about the coronavirus epidemic should understand that outbreaks of scary new diseases that spill over from animal viruses to humans are going to keep happening, said award-winning science writer David Quammen.

“This thing, Covid-19, is not a one-time event,” he said.

Quammen, 72, a Bozeman-based author, wrote the 2012 book “Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic.”

As a writer with a knack for explaining science, he has been interviewed about Covid-19, the current coronavirus epidemic, by newspapers, TV and radio stations, from NPR’s “Fresh Air” and CNN to Italy, South Korea, Australia and France.

No, we’re not ready for this new outbreak, Quammen said. If we do get a handle on this one, he said, “we should get ready for the next one because it’s going to happen again and again.”

Interviewed Wednesday by Skype from Tasmania, where he’s researching a new book, Quammen said “Spillover” essentially predicted an outbreak like Covid-19.

The book reported that the next big epidemic would likely be caused by a virus, one like coronavirus that evolves quickly, that comes from an animal, possibly a bat, and it would likely start someplace like a live-animal wet market.

“It’s not because I was prescient,” Quammen said, “but that I talked to experts about what the next big one would look like.”

To combat recurring outbreaks, we need plans for action and consistent effort — not cycles of panic followed by budget cuts once the emergency seems over.

“People have a tendency to ask, ‘How scared should we be?’” Quammen said. Instead of panicking, we should be taking action.

“We should be supporting our institutions that generate preparedness,” he said. “We should have been supporting the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) the last three years, rather than reducing its budget.”

Quammen said the Trump administration’s removal of an infectious disease expert from the National Security Council was shortsighted, but President Trump’s announcement this week of seeking $2.5 billion to fight the Covid-19 outbreak is “a step in the right direction.”

In a New York Times opinion column last month, Quammen listed 10 spillover outbreaks since 1967, including HIV in the U.S. in 1981; West Nile in New York in 1999; SARS in China in 2002; and Ebola in Africa in 1976 and 2014.

Viruses wouldn’t be jumping from wild animals to people if there weren’t 7.7 billion humans on the planet and if we weren’t invading wild animal habitats, cutting down forests, harvesting animals like bats for food and disturbing ecosystems, he said. Viruses wouldn’t be spreading so quickly if we weren’t flying on airplanes around the globe and transferring infections to each other.

“This is all about what we’re choosing to do,” he said.

Since the first week to last week of February, the number of Covid-19 deaths has grown more than fivefold, from 500 to 2,700, while known infections have grown to more than 80,000 worldwide.

Quammen said Covid-19 kills 2% to 3% of people infected. That’s not as deadly as the 2003 SARS outbreak that killed nearly 10% of those infected. Experts found SARS “really scary,” he said, and it was stopped only by the concerted efforts of public health workers.

Influenza kills far fewer of those infected, just 0.1%. Yet because it infects millions of Americans, it can kill 12,000 to 61,000 or more a year.

He pointed to a New England Journal of Medicine article Thursday that reported “alarming similarities” between Covid-19 and the 1918 influenza pandemic, called the deadliest event in human history, which killed some 50 million people.

If Covid-19 breaks out in the U.S., Quammen said, people should be ready to support government actions and accept steps like closing schools and canceling sports events and other large gatherings.

Experts commonly recommend that people wash their hands frequently to avoid contracting viruses picked up from surfaces like doorknobs.

Quammen said when he was preparing to fly to Tasmania, he stopped at Bozeman’s CVS drugstore to buy masks in case they might be required by the time he’d be flying home and was surprised to find the store had sold out all but one box.

Masks can help if you’re coughing or sneezing to prevent passing your germs to others, but aren’t very useful for keep a healthy person from catching other people’s germs, he said.

Quammen’s reporting has taken him to follow scientists into strange places, like bat caves in China to hunt the SARS virus. The reasons that bats often host viruses that spill over to humans, he said, are that bats make up a quarter of all mammal species, live in dense social groups and have immune systems that seem to tolerate viruses. A cave may have 60,000 bats roosting together three-deep to keep warm — a great environment for viruses to spread.

Coronaviruses are a family of single-strand RNA viruses that make a lot of mistakes when they replicate. That means high mutation rates and rapid evolution, which makes them very unpredictable and hard for humans to fight. We have lots of advantages, but viruses aren’t going away.

“We’re pretty smart and adaptable,” Quammen said. “Viruses are adaptable but not smart.

“We have science, we have free will, we have positive collective action,” he said. “We have the potential to respond intelligently and efficiently to this kind of threat and limit the number of people who die.”

Quammen said he’s concerned about Africa, where lots of Chinese businessmen, engineers and laborers are constantly flying back and forth, yet no Covid-19 cases have been reported. What if the virus reaches countries where the health systems don’t have lots of resources?

“This thing could explode in central Africa,” he said. “It is scary.”

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Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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