David Quammen’s book ‘Breathless’ tracks the race against COVID

David Quammen was right.

This will be dug up one day in his grave.

For most of 2020, today’s leading science writer – whose career began in Chicago more than 50 years ago, in a completely different environment – watched the 2012 bestseller, “Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic,” leave. prophecy is guided by science to scientific truth. With scary stories, he nailed what the plague would do.

“No Breath: Science’s Race to Defeat a Deadly Virus,” his latest, is the inevitable sequel no one asked for, so to speak. It’s the story of scientists trying to get ahead of SARS-CoV-2, as well as the diversity and innovation that emerged in that race. As the first draft of a sordid, ongoing history, it has been remarkably erased from science; although not surprising, it is inviting and accessible. Indeed, it is at the National Book Award.

Quammen, who grew up in Cincinnati, has been one of our best international commentators for decades, refining the works of writers like EO Wilson and Lewis Thomas. Urban coyotes and smog, vegetarian piranha, mass extinctions, cloning, molecular biology, the history of nutmeg, the height of mosquitoes – Quammen brought a rare and uncompromising tolerance to scientific writing.

At 74, he recently passed a bout of COVID. We spoke on the phone from his longtime home in Montana. The following is a short version of a long speech, edited for length and clarity:

Question: Knowing how many times you have heard that you have called the epidemic as it has been until now, how is it really different from what you expected?

A: I make a point of denying prescience. I owe it to the scientists I listened to back in 2009, 2010, 2011, when I was researching “Spillover.” They said, yes, the plague is coming. Yes, it will be viral. Yes, it will be an RNA virus. Yes, it could be the flu or the coronavirus, coming out of a wild animal, maybe a bat – maybe at a water market in China..

"Breathing: Science's Race to Defeat a Deadly Virus," by David Quammen, published October 4, 2022.

We can talk about the level of uncertainty that remains with the last words, but the level, in my opinion, is very low. How has it been different? It’s not that different. What surprised me the most was how unprepared we were, globally and nationally. I was hoping for real time inspections at airports. Scientists, who I think highly of, were working on that. There would be technology to check people for new infections in the time it takes you to get your shoes out of the TSA bin. It didn’t happen. We had the CDC shipping test kits that were useless – as Sara Cody, the public health person in Santa Clara County (California) told me about ‘Breathless.’

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We were disorganized and unprepared, but not at the scientific level, not at the level of public health officials, but within our national institutions and leadership.

Question: When did you first hear about the virus?

A: I have been a subscriber for 15 years to this ProMED internet service on infectious disease. All 8,000 of us get their emails, five or ten a day. A tumorous skin disease among water buffaloes. A child was diagnosed with avian flu in Hanoi. You get so many emails, all the time, you can’t check. So, delete delete.

After the virus died down a bit, I heard from the editor of The New York Times Op-Ed (asking me) to write about it. I wrote that we should take it seriously. But I wondered when I started to take myself seriously. I looked at my ProMED traffic. There was an email on January 13, 2020, that I had not deleted. Reported coronavirus, atypical pneumonia, Wuhan, China. That’s when I started paying attention.

Question: Why, when you wrote the book about viruses, did you focus only on science?

A: It’s an important technical question. I was in Tasmania in February working on another book for Simon & Schuster. I returned on the 2nd of March; they asked if I would push that book aside and do another one on the epidemic. But yesveryone he was going to make a book. Also one of my principles of use has always been go there: If you’re writing about chimpanzees passing viruses to humans, go to the Congo. How would I get to Wuhan? Never? Maybe? This took me a year of scratching my feet. By the end of 2020, it was clear that I couldn’t do this book with a regular pitch. So I would do it by Zoom, by gathering a Greek chorus, 60 or 70 of the most interesting virologists in the world – they became 95 virologists – to talk to them at length about their lives, as parents, as teachers, and then tell the story of the virus itself, its evolution and the people who study it.

I didn’t want to write about politics or medical and public health issues. There are many people who are assigned to do those books. But because I was asking about the lives of these people, we would get involved in politics. I asked Tony Fauci what was the most important decision he made in 2020. He said, science or politics? But I did not encourage them to do politics.

Q: You started in Chicago, not writing about science.

A: My first book was published in 1970, and it was a book about being a community organizer on the West Side of Chicago – before Barack Obama did it. I was at Lawndale in 1968, helping with an organization founded through the efforts of Jack Macnamara, a former Jesuit seminarian (he grew up in Chicago and died in 2020). He left the system and became a city councilor against racial injustice, and he was running the project on the West Side that became the Contract Buyers League of Chicago (organized to unite Black homeowners who faced discriminatory real-estate policies). I spent the summer of 1968 in Lawndale wearing a $4 Sears work shirt with a formal pad, day and night. Then, at the end of the summer, being a lucky white kid, I left Chicago and went back to Yale and thought I had the Chicago colors for a novel.

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Q: How did that become science writing?

A: I spent two years at Oxford and was sick of ivy walls, so I moved to Montana in 1973 to become a novelist, but then I realized how hard it is to make a living as a novelist. And I didn’t have a big issue. I hadn’t been very sedentary. I wrote three other novels. Only excerpts – short excerpts – were published. I was bored. I was a fly fishing guide. But I started reading fiction and I had always been interested in nature. I read Loren Eiseley, Charles Darwin, Stephen Jay Gould. I thought this could be interesting and developed myself as a writer for a magazine covering science.

Q: When I first heard about you, you were a scientist who wrote a lot about animals in a monthly column for Outside magazine, which was then based in Chicago. It seems that, in the last decade or so, you have added… molecules?

A: Exactly. I was writing what I thought were historical documents. I didn’t know evolutionary biology, but I was learning fast. My column for silly animal stories morphed into more ecology and evolutionary biology. I did that column for 15 years, and in that time (the columns) got a lot of information and hard science. Around 1999, National Geographic asked me to travel through the wild in Gabon where Ebola lives. I started reading about Ebola and how it wants to stay in the reservoir (which carries the virus) until there is a human spillover. But we did not know what this reservoir host is. Someone like Richard Preston didn’t touch on this in “The Hot Zone.” Emerging viruses are a matter of ecology and evolutionary biology. The host and the conditions that lead to the spread of the virus in people – that is the ecology. The evolutionary biology is in the ability of one virus to adapt to a new one and infect and cause a problem.

Question: But people often think of evolution as a slow process. How does this square describe our efforts to get ahead of the epidemic as a race?

A: Well, yes, that’s it. Darwin thought that natural selection proceeded slowly. But this virus in the past two years represents the most rapid change that science has made. We know because we have 12 million sequenced genome samples of this virus, a detailed picture of how it got the first mutation, how it started to cast differently – alpha, delta, omicron. It is not this the fastest growing virus, is that all RNA viruses are the fastest growing.

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Q: Your book shows expertise in tracking the virus coming from the UK.

A: They certainly did a leadership role. Sharon Peacock (at the University of Cambridge, who led a group of laboratories and institutions to sequence and analyze virus genomes) has a great story. But again, those young students who graduated in Edinburgh created the system that we have tried differently around the world. What has come of this is the belief of genome epidemiology. But as far as I know, we still don’t have the airport screening technology I mentioned. I asked what happened and (the scientist at Columbia University in New York who worked on it) couldn’t get the money.

Q: Developers – are there any similarities in terms of support?

A: No, and I think it’s more interesting. Matt Wong in Texas (who developed a powerful tool for finding and combining genomic data profiles, combining samples) did not have a master’s degree. He was a hired gun. When I talked to him he was going to a pool game in Las Vegas! This is more interesting to me than if everyone involved was a professor of molecular evolutionary biology with a $4 million grant from the NIH.

It is difficult to find funding for some of the things that are most needed to detect the next virus at an early stage, before it sickens 200 people. Say it’s a disease in one person who works at a poultry operation in Iowa. How can we see this man? It’s hard to get money to see him. Another challenge is funding field work to find the reservoir host for the new virus afterwards the horse is out of the barn. What happened to the Ebola virus? (Scientists) tell me when the epidemic is controlled, the money will go.

Question: In fact, within “Breathless” is the question of the origin of the plague itself. But why does it matter in the end if we know exactly how it all started?

A: This is a good question, and there are two answers. Think of this as a natural source versus a malicious source – meaning that the virus was created, perhaps accidentally released. There is a 98% chance that the source is natural, but then again the 2% chance is not good – so why is it important? Because a bad start means we need less science. Nature means we need more science. We cannot have less science. If you subscribe to the theory of evil origin, then you put everything they. This whole mess is about love theybecause they caused. If the origin is natural, well, then we must accept that this is on us. Maybe none of us are eating bats. But the disruption of the rainforests and ecosystems that lead to destruction, is upon us.

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