Gates, Paltrow Join Omnibus on Looming Viral Pandemics

"Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic," by David Quammen. Source: W.W. Norton & Company via Bloomberg

The international flight I took earlier this year was probably the worst place to watch the movie “Contagion,” in which Gwyneth Paltrow flies from Hong Kong to the U.S. unwittingly carrying the germs of a pandemic.

Hollywood thrillers, flu shots, lab animals and the Gates foundation are some of the many things cast in a new light by David Quammen’s smart, challenging book, “Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic.”

Quammen, an award-winning writer (“The Song of the Dodo,” “Monster of God”), covered a lot of turf during the six years he spent chasing the history, research and people involved in zoonosis, which occurs when a disease jumps from animals to humans (“spillover” is any species-to-species leap).

The jumps on Quammen’s “short list of the highlights and high anxieties” in the world of viruses from 1967 to 2009 include Marburg, Lassa, Ebola, HIV-1, Sin Nombre (a hantavirus), avian flu, Nipah (the basis for Paltrow’s bug), West Nile and SARS.

In a recent essay, Quammen cites fresh outbreaks of Ebola in Africa, West Nile fever in Dallas and hantavirus in Yosemite National Park.

It never ends. More important, sometimes it goes big: the 1918-19 flu’s 50 million dead or the roughly 30 million dead of AIDS since 1981.

Don’t panic. Quammen’s more teacher than Jeremiah. So he calms when he can; but he’s blunt when he must be.

Destroying Ecosystems

The fact is that we humans have been laying the groundwork for the Next Big One for more than a century: “when we encroach upon the host populations, hunting them for meat, dragging or pushing them out of their ecosystems, disrupting or destroying those ecosystems.”

Deforestation in Borneo opened the door to a forest-dwelling malarial mosquito that usually bites macaques but will bite people if they’ve killed or displaced the macaques. We keep asking for the leap, the zoonosis, to happen.

Then there are the well-intentioned disasters. The number of human cases of herpes B, common for macaques but rare and highly fatal for people, shot up in the U.S. during the race for a polio vaccine. So did imports of macaques. A single project consumed 17,000 monkeys between 1949 and 1951.

The tireless Quammen digs into overcrowded goat barns in the Netherlands; bat caves in Guilin, China (bats are everywhere in virus work); “818 pureed bedbugs from Ebola-affected villages”; fecal samples from almost 3,000 wild apes -- “You don’t need a syringe full of blood if a little poo will do.”

Frozen Urine

Quammen reports from the front lines where zoonosis emerges and scientists puree bedbugs. He humanizes the players behind the lab and field work with quick descriptions or wry observation. Beatrice Hahn, a pivotal figure in AIDS research and developer of the “little poo” technique, gets an e-mail asking “whether she would like six tubs of frozen Gombe urine,” to which she replies, “‘YES, YES, YES.”’

These are extraordinary people engaged in often tedious and dangerous labor, like a man named Mike Fay undertaking a 2,000-mile biological survey of Central Africa on foot. They not only inspire with their undoubtedly underpaid dedication, but they leaven the denser moments of unavoidable science.

As does Quammen, with his sense of humor and language -- “A plate of Ebola virions mixed with Hendra virions would resemble capellini in a light sauce of capers.”

Get Smart

He’s also just a good explainer. I got my resolutely nonscientific brain around a cool concept in AIDS research and almost lofted a fist pump. As Quammen writes: “The purpose of this book is not to make you more worried. The purpose of this book is to make you more smart.”

With the right knowledge, we may admire the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s long-term goal to eradicate malaria and yet still question it, as Quammen does. How do you address the malarial parasite transmitted by the Anopheles mosquito? Kill the hosts? Or “cure every macaque in the forests of Borneo?”

The AIDS story, our once and present Next Big One (“34 million living people now infected”), closes “Spillover” with an elegant combination of research, reporting and fine narrative (Quammen has also published four books of fiction).

A key moment: “The AIDS pandemic is traceable to a single contingent event ... a bloody interaction between one chimpanzee and one human ... in southeastern Cameroon, around the year 1908.” The narrative is Quammen’s recreation of how that event moved into populated areas.

It is one more reminder that behind the pandemic’s deaths, social upheaval and the art it inspired, a simple truth remains: “We humans are inseparable from the natural world.”

“Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic” is published by Norton in the U.S. and Bodley Head in the U.K. (587 pages, $28.95, 20 pounds). To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Jeffrey Burke is an editor with Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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