Author David Quammen has tracked the spillover of viruses from animals to humans for more than a decade. To avoid future pandemics, he says, we must rethink our relationship with nature and recognize how our choices can lead to dangerous disruptions of the natural world.
By Roger Cohn • April 9, 2020
As the novel coronavirus has emerged and spread around the globe, science writer David Quammen has not been surprised. He’d warned of just such a scenario in his unsettling 2012 book, Spillover, which detailed how — as we continue to disrupt the natural world — viruses are increasingly spreading from wild animal populations to humans.
A global pandemic like COVID-19 was inevitable, Quammen says in an interview with Yale Environment 360. What was not inevitable, given the alerts that scientists have been issuing for a decade or more, was the utter lack of preparedness. “I am surprised at how unprepared we’ve been and how badly we, meaning this [Trump] administration but also state governments, have managed this,” he says.
For his reporting, Quammen has crawled into bat caves with researchers in search of emerging viruses, visited wild animal markets in China that are prime hot spots for viral transfer, and traveled to African villages ravaged by Ebola. The heart of the issue, he tells e360, is “our relationship with the rest of the natural world, which is consumptive, intrusive, and disruptive.”
“All the choices that we make — what we eat, how much we travel, how many children we have, what we buy… ,” he says, “all of these choices have consequences for our contact with the rest of the natural world.”
Yale Environment 360: When you wrote Spillover in 2012, you warned that we were going to face basically the same situation we’re faced with now — a virus that spills over from animals into humans and spreads around the globe. And scientists warned us three years ago about the emerging novel coronavirus. Yet the world now finds itself unprepared for this outbreak. Has that surprised you at all?
David Quammen: Yes, the lack of preparedness is the only thing about this whole situation that has surprised me. I didn’t have any illusions that the people who control the wheels of power and government were listening carefully to the scientists, but I thought they were listening at least enough to have some preparedness. And in this country, of course, I knew that [President] Trump was trying to defund the Centers for Disease Control as much as he could and had gotten rid of the key people on the National Security Council who were in charge of pandemic preparedness.