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

David Quammen was right.

That’ll be chiseled someday into his gravestone.

For much of 2020, the great contemporary science writer — whose career began in Chicago more than 50 years ago, in a quite different space — watched as his 2012 best-seller, “Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic,” went from Science-driven prophecy to science reality. With eerily exacting details, he nailed how the pandemic would play out.

“Breathless: The Scientific Race to Defeat a Deadly Virus,” his latest, is the inevitable sequel no one asked for, so to speak. It’s an account of the scientists trying to get ahead of SARS-CoV-2, as well as the variants and innovations that came out of that race. As an early draft of ugly, ongoing history, it’s remarkably zeroed in on science; although unremarkably, it’s inviting and accessible. Indeed, it’s up for the National Book Award.

Quammen, raised in Cincinnati, has been one of our finest explainers of the natural world for decades, perfecting what writers like EO Wilson and Lewis Thomas started. Urban coyotes and smog, vegetarian piranha, mass extinction, cloning, molecular biology, the history of nutmeg, the upside of mosquitoes — Quammen has brought a rare patience and consistent informality to science writing.

At 74, he also just got over a bout of COVID. We spoke on the phone from his longtime home in Montana. The following is a shorter version of a longer conversation, edited for length and clarity:

Q: Knowing how often you’ve heard that you called the pandemic exactly as it has played out so far, how different has it actually been from what you expected?

A: I make a point of disclaiming prescience. I credit that to the scientists I listened to back in 2009, 2010, 2011, when I was researching “Spillover.” They said, yes, a pandemic is coming. Yeah, it’s going to be viral. Yeah, it’s going to be an RNA virus. Yeah, it could be an influenza or a coronavirus, coming out of a wild animal, probably a bat — possibly at a wet market in China.

"Breathless: The Scientific Race to Defeat a Deadly Virus," by David Quammen, published Oct.  4, 2022.

We can talk about the level of uncertainty that remains with that last detail, but the level, in my view, is very low. How different has it been? Not very damn different. What surprised me most was how unprepared we were, globally and nationally. I expected real-time diagnostic testing at airport checkpoints. Scientists, ones I think highly of, were working on that. There would be a technology so they screen people for a new virus in the time it takes you to get your shoes out of a TSA bin. It didn’t happen. We had the CDC shipping test kits that were junk — as Sara Cody, the public health person in Santa Clara County (California) told me for ‘Breathless.’

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

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Q: When did you first hear about the virus?

A: I have been a subscriber for 15 years to this ProMED internet service on infectious diseases. All 8,000 of us get their emails, five or 10 a day. A lumpy skin disease among water buffaloes. A child tested positive for avian flu in Hanoi. You get so many emails, all the time, you can’t focus. So, delete delete delete.

After this virus got going a bit, I heard from an editor at The New York Times Op-Ed (asking me) to write about it. I wrote we needed to take it seriously. But I wondered when I started to take it seriously. I looked at my ProMED traffic. There was an email on Jan. 13, 2020, that I had not deleted. It mentioned coronavirus, atypical pneumonia, Wuhan, China. That’s when I started to pay attention.

Q: Why, when you eventually wrote a book on the virus, did you focus on science alone?

A: Important tactical question. I was in Tasmania in February working on a different book for Simon & Schuster. I got back on March 2; They asked if I would push that book aside and do one on the pandemic. But everyone was going to do a book. Plus one of my operating principles has long been to go there: If you’re writing about chimpanzees passing viruses to humans, go to the Congo. How soon could I get to Wuhan? Never? Maybe? That took me a year of shuffling my feet. By the end of 2020, it was clear I couldn’t do this book by having the usual field adventures. So I would do it by Zoom, by assembling a Greek chorus, 60 or 70 of the world’s most interesting virologists — which became 95 virologists — talk to them at length about their lives, as parents, as teachers, then tell a story of the The virus itself, its evolution and the people studying it.

I didn’t want to write about the politics or the medical and public health crisis. There are people more embedded to do those books. But because I was asking about these people’s lives, we would get into politics. I asked Tony Fauci what was the most important decision he made in 2020. He said, scientific or political? But I didn’t encourage them to stew over politics.

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

A: My first book was published in 1970, and it was a novel about being a community organizer on the West Side of Chicago — before Barack Obama made it cool. I was in Lawndale in 1968, helping with an organization founded through the catalytic action of Jack Macnamara, a former Jesuit seminarian (who grew up in Chicago and died in 2020). He left the order and became an urban activist on racial injustice, and he was doing this project on the West Side that became the Contract Buyers League of Chicago (organized to mobilize Black homeowners facing discriminatory real-estate policies). I spent the summer of 1968 in Lawndale in a $4 Sears work shirt with a legal pad, by day and by night. Then, at the end of the summer, being a privileged white kid, I left Chicago and headed back to Yale and thought I had Chicago characters for a novel.

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Q: How did that become science writing?

A: I did two years of graduate school at Oxford and was sick of ivy-colored walls, so I moved to Montana in 1973 to be a novelist, but then I discovered how hard it is to make a living as a novelist. And I didn’t have any great stories. I didn’t live much. I wrote three more novels. Only portions — excerpted short stories — were published. I bartended. I was a fly-fishing guide. But I started reading nonfiction and I had always had an interest in the natural world. I was reading Loren Eiseley, Charles Darwin, Stephen Jay Gould. I thought this could be fun and reinvented myself as a magazine writer covering science.

Q: When I first heard of you, you were a literary science guy writing a lot about animals in a monthly column for Outside magazine, which was then in Chicago. It seems, though, in the past decade or so, you’ve become more … molecular?

A: Absolutely right. I was writing what I thought were natural history essays. I didn’t know evolutionary biology, but I was learning fast. My column of wacky animal stories morphed into more ecology and evolutionary biology. I did that column for 15 years, and during that time (the columns) did get more informed with hard science. Around 1999, National Geographic asked me to walk through a forest in Gabon that is an Ebola habitat. I started reading up on Ebola and how it needs to live in a reservoir host (that harbors a virus) until there is a human spillover. But we didn’t know what that reservoir host was. Someone like Richard Preston did not touch on this in “The Hot Zone.” Emerging viruses are all about ecology and evolutionary biology. The host and the circumstances that lead to a virus spilling over into humans — that’s ecology. The evolutionary biology is in the capacity for a particular virus to adapt to a new host and transmit and cause trouble.

Q: Yet people tend to think of evolution as a slow process. How does that square with describing our attempts to get in front of the pandemic as more like a race?

A: Well, yes, that’s right. Darwin thought natural selection moved very slowly. But this virus over the past two years essentially represents the fastest evolutionary process that science has closely documented. We know because we have 12 million sequenced genome samples of this virus, a detailed picture of how it gained its first mutation, how it started throwing off variants — alpha, delta, omicron. It’s not that this The virus is extraordinarily fast evolving, it’s that all RNA viruses are extraordinarily fast at evolving.

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Q: Your book suggests innovations in virus tracking are coming from the UK.

A: Certainly they played a leadership role. Sharon Peacock (at the University of Cambridge, who led a consortium of labs and agencies to sequence and analyze virus genomes) has a great story. But also, those young graduate students in Edinburgh who created the system through which we have traced variants around the world. What has come of this is an appreciation for genome epidemiology. But as far as I know, we still don’t have that airport screening technology I mentioned. I asked what happened and (the scientist at Columbia University in New York who worked on it) could not get funding.

Q: The innovators — are there similarities there in terms of support?

A: No, and I think that’s more interesting. Matt Wong in Texas (who designed a powerful tool to locate and connect genomic data profiles, linking samples) didn’t have a master’s degree. He was a hired gun. When I spoke to him he was attending a pool tournament in Las Vegas! That’s more interesting to me than if every person involved was a senior professor of molecular evolutionary biology with a $4 million grant from the NIH.

It’s hard to get funding for some of the things absolutely necessary in spotting the next virus at a very early stage, before it sickens 200 people. Say it’s an infection in one person working at a poultry operation in Iowa. How can we spot that guy? It’s hard to get funding to spot him. The other problem is funding the fieldwork to discover the reservoir host of a new virus after the horse is out of the barn. What happened to the reservoir host of Ebola? (Scientists) tell me once an outbreak is controlled, the money goes away.

Q: In fact, throughout “Breathless” is the question of the origin of the pandemic itself. But why does it matter ultimately if we know exactly how this all started?

A: That is a good question, and there are a couple of answers. Think of this as natural origins versus nefarious origins — meaning an engineered virus, maybe accidentally released. There’s a 98% chance the origin is natural, but also a 2% chance it’s nefarious — so why is that important? Because nefarious origins imply we need less science. Natural implies we need more science. We can’t have less science. If you subscribe to the theory of the nefarious origin, then you place it all on them. This whole mess is about thembecause they caused it. If the origin is natural, well, then we have to acknowledge that this is on us. Maybe none of us individually are eating bats. But the disruption of tropical forests and ecosystems that bring about spillovers, that is on us.

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