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The Pandemic He Predicted: David Quammen on How We Talk About Pandemics

National Geographic reporter David Quammen, predictor of the coronavirus outbreak, on navigating an emerging national conversation about death.

David Quammen, the legendary National Geographic reporter, wrote the book on coronavirus almost a decade ago. He published it in 2012. It’s called Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic and it expounds on a threat that epidemiologists have known about for decades, animal-borne or zoonotic diseases jumping the species barrier and becoming global disasters. Quammen didn’t want to write a sequel, but now he’s been calling up old sources, checking in with his contacts, and poking around. Working out of his home outside Missoula, Montana, he’s revisiting the prophecy he borrowed from front-line PhDs. There’s nothing much else to do as the novel coronavirus COVID-19 spreads across the country and the world.

“This is a replay of SARS without the happy ending,” he says matter-of-factly.

That Quammen is studiously less than stoic in the face of the threat posed by this pandemic is chilling. For the better part of four decades, he’s worked at the edge of the apocalypse, publishing The Chimp and the River about the origin of HIV, Monster of God about animals that eat people, and The Song of the Dodo about extinction. Quammen is a measured man, the sort that can contain fear in a cage of reason. And he is frightened. He knows enough to know what we don’t know. He knows enough to ask the big questions and interpret the silence that follows. He’s that guy. The National Geographic guy with the mustache and the pet snake and as you read this he’s probably secluded in his home. He may be washing his hands.

In search of guidance for how to behave around and communicate about a truly global threat, Fatherly spoke to Quammen about what it means to treat a virus with respect and a pandemic with the seriousness it deserved a decade ago.

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You have reported on zoonotic diseases for a fairly long time and from a variety of difficult locations. What about living under the threat of disease have you learned from working alongside researchers and virus hunters?

I’ve gone to the places viruses emerge. I’ve been around ebola sites in the Congo — though never during an outbreak, in Chinese caves looking for SARs, and on rooftops in Bangladesh looking for Nipah. Those situations were not terrifying because I trust the scientists I’ve been with. They love their jobs and life. What I do is take whatever precaution they take and then I  stand a few feet behind them.

How did you get into this in the first place? Why did you want to focus on writing about disease?

I remember walking through a stretch of forest in northeast Gabon with Mike Fay when he was doing the Megatransect, 2000 miles of bushwacking through the African forest. We did a stretch through known ebola habitat and we didn’t know what the reservoir host was. So we’re walking through the forest with 12 Gabonese guys with machetes and it was interesting. Mike told his cook, ‘Listen, do not pick up any dead monkeys you find and feed them to us.’ 

But they knew. An outbreak had occurred five years earlier in their village. We talked about it around a fire. One of the guys said that when Ebola was killing people in their village he found a pile of 13 dead gorillas in the forest. I think that’s what started me on the journey of writing about zoonotic diseases, this idea of shared jeopardy.

Do you have a story about being near an outbreak that you think is indicative of what can and should be done by those Americans — right-thinking Americans — who are taking the coronavirus threat seriously?

In 2010, I was researching Nipah [a viral infection that often puts victims in a coma in two days] in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and went to see a US health official. Nipah comes out of bats is amplified in pigs and kills people. Sometimes bats defecate in date palm sap that sappers collect like maple syrup and use to flavor drinks. Of the people that get infected, a sizeable portion die.

So I go to see this guy Steve and he gives me the fist bump handshake and says he doesn’t shake hands, no offense. I find out this front-line guy has published papers on the value of handwashing. I thought, come on. But I listened and he explained that many diseases follow the respiratory route, meaning they spread via spit, which flies five feet and lands on stuff, but it doesn’t hang in the air. Touching is required for transmission. The solution is handwashing. Soap because it breaks down viral envelopes. 

I’m not a germaphobe, but I wash my hands a lot. In the winter they crack and bleed. Some of that is because of the air here in Montana where I live. Some is that I just wash my hands a lot.

My parents are gone. If they were alive now I would be terrified for them. 

It’s interesting. In Bangladesh and elsewhere, the threat of disease is always present. In America, it doesn’t seem that way. Do you think that we treat diseases with the respect they deserve? Do you think our attitudes around preparedness — not politically, but personally — are skewed by our history?

The truth is that we’ve been lucky with disease. The Iroquois and the Sioux were less lucky. We brought them smallpox and measles and other diseases that killed off 90 percent of their population. The people who proceeded us as the occupiers of North America weren’t so lucky. We should remember that.

We should have respect for disease. Native people do. Young Masai braves protecting their precious cows against lions know that they have a lower chance of dying from a lion or a fight with a different tribal people than they have of dying of Malaria.

That said, native peoples sometimes do think differently. The life expectancy of children in the sorts of villages where Ebola represents a threat isn’t 75 or 80. When you say to these people, ‘This can kill you,’ they are entitled to say that malnutrition and elephants and falling trees and other threats can as well. They are entitled to say, ‘What’s the big deal?” We are not, but we do.

You are demonstrably knowledgeable not just about diseases, but about novel coronaviruses in particular. What are you saying to the people that you care about and the people that you love right now? 

I am talking to people that I love who are scared. Some are knowledgeable and some aren’t. They are glued to their computers. I’m trying to be supportive and respectful of their fear and trying to turn it into concrete action. Let’s think about what we should do for ourselves and the people we love. Let’s not be alarmed at all the scary reports, some of which will be wrong or ill informed. I try to help with fact-checking. 

What would you recommend for those of us unprepared or simply inadequately educated to be fact-checkers?

Remember this is not just a conversation about fear of a virus, but fear of death. How scared should we be? I try to be polite when I’m asked, but it’s the wrong question. Being scared is useless. Ask me what we should do or how seriously should we take this and how much should we modify our lives. People want to get to the bottom line: Are we all going to die? That drives me nuts because it’s lazy. Yeah, guess what, we’re all going to die. We’re also going to pay taxes. Now let’s get a bit more reflective. Let’s be more subtle. Let’s have a plan.

What’s your plan?

I am an older man. God help me, I’m 72. So I’m in the demographic and my wife is saying, ‘Don’t forget you’re elderly’. I’m not traveling or on the front lines, but this will be everywhere soon, even in Montana. It will come to me. 

Still, I live a life with a lot of social distance under ordinary circumstances. I have two dogs, a cat, a wife, and snake — not in that order — and we don’t see many people.

That sounds ideal, but I’m presuming that there are friends and family you’re in touch with that are in far worse shape.

My parents are gone. If they were alive now I would be terrified for them. 

We are concerned about my wife’s father, who is 79. She loves her father over the moon and he’s had heart issues. Our responses will circle around him because he’s of the demographic at greatest risk. Everything we do will be about keeping him safe and lending him support. We’re a close family so we consider collective responses. 

Mounting a collective response isn’t something America has been great at historically or in regards to this crisis so far. I wonder if you’re optimistic about the endgame here or if you think this will be, like SARS, a horrible thing from which we don’t seem to pull any lessons.

Rahm Emmanuel said, ‘You never let a serious crisis go to waste.’ I hope this crisis does not go to waste. SARS went to waste. Public health professionals told us a novel coronavirus could be a very dangerous pathogen. Where did that lesson go? I don’t know. When we get control, before or after thousands or millions die, I’m hoping we don’t just say that was horrible and now it’s done. This will have been episode two. We should be better prepared for episode three or lives will go to waste.