Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, by David Quammen

Review published on November 7, 2013. Reviewed by Rebecca Foster

Imagine Michael Crichton at his most thrilling (Jurassic Park, Prey), then give him a PhD in evolutionary biology or epidemiology and elevate his writing style to the very heights of journalistic eloquence, and you might have something approaching David Quammen’s brilliance.

A mostly self-taught journalist (and sometime novelist) from Montana, he has written a number of books on popular science, including The Song of the Dodo (1997), a survey of island biogeography, or the ways in which plant and animal populations evolve in isolation, and an accessible biography of Charles Darwin, The Reluctant Mr Darwin (2006). However, Spillover is perhaps his most urgent and relevant work to date: in this age of globalization, epidemics can spread rapidly; and, even with many now feeling cut off from nature due to an urban lifestyle, there are still plenty of opportunities for animal disease microbes to infect people.

Quammen travels throughout the United States and to Australia, Bangladesh, China and Congo in search of the key stories of zoonotic outbreak. He begins with the Hendra virus, which infected Australia’s racehorses in 1994 – and later jumped to the horses’ human keepers. Then, in 1996, a dozen or so villagers in Gabon became ill after butchering and consuming a chimpanzee: eating bushmeat gave them Ebola. Yet zoonotic diseases are not necessarily anything new, even though they are becoming more prevalent: Lyme disease from rodents (via ticks and deer), psittacosis from parrots, Q fever from domestic mammals, malaria from mosquitoes – one would be forgiven for thinking that the animals have always been attacking, albeit passively and vicariously, through their diseases.

The strongest pieces here are on Ebola and SARS – with that chapter in particular reading like a film screenplay, if this were a far superior version of Contagion. Only very occasionally does Quammen drift into a level of scientific detail that taxes the layman’s imagination. Some of the chapters are a bit too long (one about the various strains of HIV, for instance), but this is a minor complaint about an otherwise terrific read. His sympathetic portrayal of the individual people or animals involved is particularly remarkable, as when he follows the story of a woman who was placed in quarantine for three weeks at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Maryland, after her suspected exposure to Ebola.

Throughout, Quammen’s prose is both engaging and entertaining; here is one example of his humorous approach (and his often striking metaphors): the durian is “the world’s stinkiest fruit. It’s a large spiky thing…like a puffer fish that has swallowed a football…The pulp tastes like vanilla custard and smells like the underwear of someone you don’t want to know.” Another of my favourite lines (echoing British geneticist J.B.S. Haldane, who noted the Almighty’s “inordinate fondness for beetles”) was “anyone who favours Intelligent Design in lieu of evolution might pause to wonder why God devoted so much of His intelligence to designing malarial parasites.”

Although zoonoses make for a rather sobering topic for a book – along with some quite alarming anecdotes and statistics – this is not scare-mongering for the sake of it; indeed, Quammen frankly concludes that all of us are still much more likely to die of heart disease or fatal car crashes: “Yes, we are all gonna die. Yes. We are all gonna pay taxes and we are all gonna die. Most of us, though, will probably die of something much more mundane than a new virus lately emerged from a duck or a chimpanzee or a bat.” Still, the reader cannot help but wonder: what will be the next major pandemic? When and where and how will it happen, and how severe could it be? Quammen’s enthralling book predicts worrying days ahead.

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