Thursday 19 March 2020
Spillover by David Quammen
This fascinating book looks at zoonosis - diseases that have entered (spilled over into) the human population through contact with animals (by eating, farming or hunting) and asks what the next big pandemic disease will be. I first posted this review about two years ago but it's a very pertinent book for the times we're living through, so I'm posting again.
Quammen is a brilliant science journalist, laying out well researched facts with a narrative style that would suit a thriller. He takes the reader through research into the origins of diseases such as Ebola, flu and AIDS, looking at how the diseases made their way into human communities and how they spread. He talks to eminent scientists in molecular biology, epidemiology and disease ecology.
This could be a very dry and depressing topic, specially 520 pages of it, and I admit, although I picked this book up a couple of years ago, I just couldn't bring myself to read it until recently. I'm very glad I did though, it is a total page turner and is full of fascinating science that is presented in an accessible way, without ever being dumbed down.
The main message of this book is very sobering. With all we are doing to the environment - destroying rainforests and other valuable habitats, forcing proximity between ourselves and wild animals and between our domestic animals and those wild animals we are constantly enabling diseases to pass from wild animals to ourselves. Some of those diseases might be more or less symptom free in their wild hosts (as disease and host have evolved together) but attack humans with ferocity. Others may cause serious disease in their wild hosts and the same for us as well.
The second message is equally sobering. We often talk about outbreaks of disease, but an outbreak is a sudden increase in population of any organism, whether it is a new version of the flu virus or a plague of locusts. Most outbreaks surge and then collapse. If you look at the growth of the human population over the recent past, then as a species we could be described as an outbreak and so the question is begged - when is our population going to crash? And will it be the next zoonotic pandemic that causes that crash? And if so what will be that disease?
It's a fascinating book, well worth reading if you're interested in health or the natural world.
Spillover by David Quammen published by BodleyHead (2014) on FSC certified sustainable paper.
Edited to add: In this article on the Orion magazine website, David Quammen talks about COVID-19.