Saturday, November 12, 2022

Q&A with David Quammen




David Quammen is the author of the new book Breathless: The Scientific Race to Defeat a Deadly Virus. His many other books include Spillover, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New Yorker and The Atlantic. He lives in Bozeman, Montana.


Q: In his New York Times review of Breathless, Michael Sims writes: “‘Soothsayer’ isn’t on Quammen’s extensive résumé, but he was among those who had long predicted this kind of catastrophe. In 2012 he provided a field guide to the future, “Spillover,” whose subtitle — “Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic” — explains exactly what the scientific community had long been expecting." What do you think of that assessment, and what inspired you to write Breathless?


A: I was at work on an entirely different book, for Simon & Schuster, in January 2020 as the pandemic got going. I spent February in Tasmania, for that book, researching the subject of cancer as an evolutionary phenomenon.


Why Tasmania? Because a genuinely contagious cancer is killing off Tasmanian devils by the thousands, driving that wondrous species toward the brink of extinction. And that story informs the larger subject: cancer and evolution.


After I returned to the US on March 2, 2020, my publisher asked me, through my agent, if I would set that book temporarily aside and give them a book on the pandemic. I said yes—not because it was an opportunity, but because it seemed a sort of duty.


I said yes despite two constraints: I would be writing a book on a subject about which many other writers would be doing books, so I had to figure out a way to make mine fresh and unique; and I had to do it, I knew, without being able to travel widely for research, as I usually do—going there, hiking through the jungles and climbing through the caves with the scientists who study viruses.


I mulled on that through 2020, while doing a few shorter pieces, for The New Yorker and the Times, on the virus.


Then, in late December 2021, I hit on a plan for the Covid book: I would make the virus itself my main character, and I would tell the story of its origin, evolution, and fierce journey through humans by way of the voices of expert scientists around the world (95 of them, as it turned out) who study the virus.


I would ask those scientists about their work on the virus and their views of it, but I would ask them also about their lives during the pandemic, as lab leaders, teachers, spouses, parents, children of elderly parents. I started on January 1, 2021, did Zoom interviews with the scientists for six months, then spent six months writing, not hurriedly but very steadily. My deadline was December 31, 2021, and I made it with two weeks to spare.

Q: What would you say are some of the most common perceptions and misconceptions about Covid, initially and today?


A: Most people have only the vaguest idea of what a virus is and how it works. Does it mutate? Of course it mutates, all viruses continually mutate. The real question on that topic is “Does it evolve, by Darwinian natural selection on those many mutations?” It does indeed.


Another misconception: “Oh, herd immunity will set in after many people have become infected (and died) and the rest of us will be fine.” Herd immunity is illusory for this virus, for several reasons I describe in detail in the book.


The two main ones: This virus evolves so readily that no one seems to be immune simply because they have recovered from a first case of Covid. And no geographical population on Earth can achieve herd immunity as long as people are constantly traveling between populations.


The only real “herd immunity” would be for the entire human herd. And we won’t achieve that so long as the virus keeps evolving to escape immune defenses. Invoking herd immunity as a solution to this pandemic was ignorant, stupid, and cruel.

Q: How did you research the book, especially given the limits imposed during the worst of the pandemic?


A: As mentioned above, I made a long list of scientists who interested me, emailed them with requests to do extended (90 minutes) Zoom interviews, then did those 95 Zoom interviews from my home office, had them transcribed, and used the scientists' voices to tell the story of the virus in mostly continuous, narrative form.

Q: You conclude the book by saying that "COVID-19 won't be our last pandemic of the twenty-first century. It probably won't be our worst." Can you say more about what you see looking ahead?


A: To be a little more precise: It won’t be our last pandemic threat. To be slightly more optimistic than I was in those closing words: Spillovers of new viruses will continue to happen, and some will threaten pandemic, but if we vastly improve our systems of active surveillance for viral spillovers, catch them at very early stages, and implement extremely robust measures of public health to contain them, we can prevent them, perhaps, from turning into pandemics.


But if there is a next pandemic, it could be much worse than this—for instance, by achieving equally or even more efficient human-to-human transmission, and inflicting a higher case-fatality rate on those it infects. Instead of infecting 600 million people and killing 6 million, it might infect 2 or 3 billion people and kill 10 percent of them. Devastation.

Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’ve just finished correcting proofs on another new book, which will appear in May, from National Geographic Books, under the title The Heartbeat of the Wild. It’s a book on conservation of biological diversity around the world, what works and what doesn’t.


I’ve assembled it, at the request of Nat Geo, from 21 conservation articles I wrote for Nat Geo Magazine over a period of 20 years—but it’s more than a collection. I’ve added a lot of new material, new thinking, connective tissue and updates, plus a new Foreword and Afterword, to make it, as much as possible, a unified vision of conservation situations, needs, and possibilities in the 21st century.


After that book has been published, and I’ve supported it with book-related interviews, etc., as I’m now supporting this one, I suppose I’ll go right back to the book about cancer as an evolutionary phenomenon. There’s still the story to be told of what Tasmanian devils and their contagious cancer have to do with understanding cancer among the rest of us. Which is a lot.

Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Yes: Somewhere in here I need a vacation. I want to take my wife to Slovenia.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with David Quammen.

No comments:

Post a Comment