Breathless jacket450Click image to pre-order on Amazon.   On October 4, 2022, Simon & Schuster published Breathless: The Scientific Race to Defeat a Deadly Virus, my seventeenth book. On the same day, by happy coincidence, I learned that the book had been named one of five finalists for the National Book Award in Nonfiction. The winners were announced at a gala NBA event in New York on November 16, 2022, which my wife Betsy and I attended. My book didn't win (that honor went to Imani Perry, well-deserved for her book South to America) but Betsy and I had a fine evening, and much enjoyed spending time with some of the other nominees, such as Robert Samuels and Toluse Olorunnipa (co-authors of His Name Is George Floyd), Meghan O'Rourke (The Invisible Kingdom) and her husband, the writer James Surowiecki, and the poet Roger Reeves (Best Barbarian). Next day I took my tux back to the rental shop. And then Betsy and I flew to Italy for ten days, mostly devoted to book-tour activities in support of Breathless (Senza Respiro in the Italian edition, published by my wonderful Italian publisher Adelphi) over there.
Breathless is a story of the virus that has caused the COVID-19 pandemic—its origin, its evolution, its fierce journey through the human population. That virus is known as SARS-CoV-2. But this book is about people, not just about a virus. My main human characters are scientists, around the world, who have studied the virus, in a breathless effort to understand where it has come from, where it is going, and how we might cope with it to minimize misery and death. The book is a narrative of science in action, not a diatribe. It attempts to illuminate, among other things, the reality that science is a human process—a set of methods and principles and goals, not a body of facts—that moves by provisional steps toward clearer understanding of the physical world, including viral ecology and evolution.

Simon & Schuster asked me, in spring of 2020, to write a book about this pandemic, partly because I had a running start. I’ve been following the subject of dangerous viruses for about twenty years. Ten years ago, my book Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic described the principles and the history of zoonotic diseases—that is, animal infections that get into humans—and channeled the wisdom of certain scientific experts, who predicted aspects of the pandemic they foresaw. That coming pandemic would be caused by a new virus, passed to humans from wildlife. More specifically, it would be caused by a single-stranded RNA virus, because those evolve quickly and have a record of spilling from nonhuman animals into people. Still more specifically, the new scourge might be an influenza virus, or a measles-related virus, or a coronavirus. It could very possibly emerge into humans from wildlife captured and sold live, for food, as done in the wet markets of China that I had seen while researching Spillover.

Because of those predictions, when COVID-19 began, many people asked me: How were you so prescient? I wasn’t prescient, I said. I just listened to the experts.

A dilemma that faced me in 2020, as I began thinking about how to do a book on COVID-19, was that—like most of the rest of the world—I couldn’t travel. I couldn’t go (again) to China and climb (again) through caves filled with bats alongside scientists looking for dangerous viruses. I couldn’t shadow scientists at other field sites, as I usually do, and describe the adventurous, arduous, risky aspects of their work. I couldn’t even visit them in their labs and offices. One of my usual operating principles, as I have written about the sciences of ecology, evolutionary biology, and infectious disease, has been: Go there. Go to the Chinese caves. Go to the Congo forest. Go to the rooftops of Bangladesh, above which giant fruit bats circle at night, carrying nasty pathogens such as Nipah virus. But in this case, I couldn’t go anywhere. So I hit upon an alternate approach.

Beginning in January 2021, I did extended Zoom interviews with ninety-five of the world’s most interesting scientists (and a few public health officials) involved in the study of, and response to, the coronavirus. They ranged from Tony Fauci and George Gao (head of the China CDC at the time) and Eddie Holmes (an eminent molecular evolutionary virologist, whom I knew from Spillover research) and Sharon Peacock (leader of the United Kingdom’s massive effort to sequence genomes of SARS-CoV-2) to brilliant but unknown graduate students, technicians, and young researchers in labs from Edinburgh to Melbourne to Houston. Those interviews took me most of six months, and then I wrote the book during the second half of 2021. I incorporated the latest developments in the virus itself and the science of its dynamics as best I could, up until the point, some months into 2022, when the revising and checking had to be finalized and the book went into production.

From the beginning, my working title was low-key, understated, but (I hoped) ominous, and drawn from the careful terminology that scientists applied to this nefarious bug when it was first detected in people: A Novel Virus. Once it was finished and delivered, the Simon & Schuster team asked me to come up with a different title, something more vivid and urgent. I brainstormed with my editor, the astute and vastly experienced Bob Bender, and with my wife, the astute and vastly imaginative Betsy. We considered and discarded a list of unsatisfactory possibilities. Then, one morning near the deadline, Betsy and I were sitting in my office, giving it one more try. Catching the Virus had been suggested, for its applicability to both the process of infection and the scientific quest to understand and contain SARS-CoV-2. I wasn’t happy with that. Betsy suggested a variant, referring to the societal as well as individual struggles after two years of pandemic: Catching Our Breath. No, I said. But maybe close. And then I thought, simply: Breathless. Everyone embraced it.

Yes, it’s a word that’s been a title before, including for the English release of a very famous French movie (À Bout de Souffle, in the original). But you can’t copyright a title. Some get reused in differing ways. Jean-Paul Belmondo can haunt me if he sees fit.



franzJosephLand2Quammen makes his way across a basaltic scree field in Franz Joseph Land in the Russian Arctic. Read his blog post about the 2013 Pristine Seas Expedition sponsored by National Geographic. Photograph by Andy Mann.

David Quammen is an author and journalist whose books include The Song of the Dodo (1996), The Reluctant Mr. Darwin (2006), and  Spillover (2014), a work on the science, history, and human impacts of emerging diseases (especially viral diseases), which was short-listed for eight national and international awards and won three.  His shorter books Ebola  (2014) and  The Chimp and the River(2015) were drawn from Spillover, each with a new introduction. His forthcoming book (August 2018) is The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life, which explores the drastic revisions in understanding of life’s history on Earth forced by recent discoveries from genome sequencing, and the story of a scientist named Carl Woese. In the past thirty years Quammen has also published a few hundred pieces of short nonfiction—feature articles, essays, columns—in magazines such as Harper’s, National Geographic, Outside, Esquire, The Atlantic, Powder, and Rolling Stone.  He writes occasional Op Eds for The New York Times and reviews for The New York Times Book Review.  Quammen has been honored with an Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and is a three-time recipient of the National Magazine Award.  He is a Contributing Writer for National Geographic, in whose service he travels often, usually to wild and remote places.  Home is Bozeman, Montana.

Throughout the rest of this website, he will not refer to himself in the third person.





Yellowstone: A Journey Through
America's Wild Heart

The Chimp and the River



The Reluctant Mr. Darwin

Monster of God

The Song of the Dodo


Natural Acts

The Boilerplate Rhino

Wild Thoughts from Wild Places

The Flight of the Iguana


Blood Line

The Soul of Viktor Tronko

The Zolta Configuration

To Walk the Line


On the Origin of Species

by Charles Darwin

The Illustrated Edition

The Best American Science

and Nature Writing 2000

Edited with Burkhard Bilger


  • Zoom!

    January 9, 2023

        Whew. It's been a busy three years for me, mostly spent researching and writing about the pandemic virus, SARS-CoV-2, and its fierce journey through the human population. (See the article on Breathless, just to the left.) For most of that time, I stayed home in my little office, in Bozeman, Montana, interviewing virologists and other scientific experts by Zoom. I scarcely left home. I made it through the year 2020, with my RAV4, on one tank of gas. During 2021 and much of 2022, I worked harder, here at the desk, than I've ever worked before (and also harder, I hope, than I ever will again). Then in September 2022 it came time to hit the road again: passport350book tour time. So I flew to Seattle. And then toWashington, DC. And then to Memphis, Singapore, Milan, New York, back to Milan, Rome, Trieste, and Portland. Please don't tell Greta Thunburg. I'm aware of the carbon-footprint issue and I'm trying to deal with it. One method is Zoom. For the ninety-five interviews I did with my scientific sources while researching Breathless, the new book, I had traveled zero. But for some kinds of interaction, you simply have to show up. 

        One thing my autumn travel itinerary reflected is that book tours are not quite like they used to be, except in Italy. In the U.S., publishers have found that public-radio and podcast appearances are generally more cost-effective than sending an author to a city for a personal appearance at a bookstore. But in Italy, at least in my experience, there is still a great appetite for the author to show up, give a talk, answer questions, sign books—even if his Italian language skills are nonexistent. (But I'm now working on that, with an online language app. Baby steps so far. "Andiamo al cinema stasera?") And in Singapore—that was another matter, an international disease conference at which I was helping out as a panel moderator and converging with scientific contacts.

        Now I've been home again for two months, catching up on life and skiing as well as chores at the desk. In late January I did an Op Ed for the Washington Post on the topic of whether a new subcommittee of the U.S. House, its members appointed by Kevin McCarthy, should be charged with investigating, not just the U.S. insitututional response to the Covid pandemic but also the scientific question of the origin of the virus. Hint of what I said: No.


        I have another book coming out in May, from National Geographic Books, titled The Heartbeat of the Wild, and I'll give some public talks in support of that one too. I have no desire to live amid a perrenial Book Tour, but on the other hand I'm grateful for opportunities to address audiences, meet readers, and answer their questions. So, FWIW: On February 17-18 I'll be at the Savannah Book Festival in Georgia; on March 3-4 at the Tucson Festival of Books; on March 8 at the Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton, MT (that one isn't public); on March 15-16 in Telluride, CO, for their One Book One Canyon program; on March 25 at the International Wildlife Film Festival in Missoula, MT, teaming there with my wife Betsy; on April 15 at the Kennedy Center in Washington for "Flow," their literary series on the beauties and importance of American rivers; on April 19-20 at the Society for Environmental Journalists annual conference, in Boise, ID; and on May 21 at the Santa Fe Book Fest, where I'll chat onstage with one of the Fest's co-founders, my old friend and editor from Outside Magazine days, Mark Bryant. Then I'll come home and do my best to travel no more for the summer (unless I get another invitation from my friends in Italy).

        I dearly love my home, the town and state in which it sits, and the quietly chaotic good company of my family (Betsy, the three dogs, the cat, the python), but sometimes the work requires, or at least strongly suggests, travel. It can't all be done online. Then you throw a few shirts in a bag, grab the passport and the toothbrush, and . . . zoom.



    August 16, 2022

          Here's an interesting fact that you might want to swirl around in your head, along with a sip of the morning coffee: Scientists have now assembled and archived more than 12 million genome sequences of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

    Novel Coronavirus SARS CoV 2 50047466323
          Each of those sequences is derived from a sample of saliva or other material drawn from an individual patient. Each consists of almost thirty thousand genomic letters in the alphabet of DNA (as translated, for stability during lab work, from the less stable alphabet of the virus’s RNA genome). Together they constitute data points reflecting the evolutionary history of SARS-CoV-2, from its earliest form as detected in Wuhan to its latest variants. Scientists have assembled those data points into a family tree, depicting the divergence and evolution of viral lineages as branches and limbs and twigs. (Actually, there are multiple versions of the tree, differing slightly from one another based on differences in the subset of data used and in the interpretation of ambiguities.) From the details of that family tree and its ongoing growth, disease experts and public health officials draw insights helpful to understanding and containing the spread of the virus. That field of science is called genomic epidemiology.

          Last week I published an Op Ed in The New York Times on this subject:

          The Op Ed took about eight days of work, writing and revising, then editing and correcting, with help from a fine editor and a crackerjack fact-checker at the Times. It drew also on my two years of effort toward a new book, Breathless: The Scientific Race to Defeat a Deadly Virus, which will be published by Simon & Schuster on October 4. (See the main post, left of this column.) And that book itself drew on—in addition to 95 interviews with scientists and other experts around the world, during early 2021—my twenty years of intermittently following and writing about the subject of emerging viruses.

          I never foresaw, back in the days when I was a young man writing fiction, or during the decades I worked as a journalist and author focused on ecology, evolutionary biology, and conservation, that I would spend so much of my elder years as an explainer of viruses. But it didn’t seem illogical, once I realized that a) all science writing needs to be storytelling, and b) the stories of emerging viruses are all tales of ecology and evolutionary biology.

          Darwin would have understood. But Darwin never had the gruesome satisfaction of pondering viral evolution, its strange turns and its awesome speed, because viruses weren’t known to exist in his era. Too small to see, too weird to imagine. Edward O. Wilson (who died last Christmas and is much missed) did understand, even though he didn’t study viruses himself. Ed recognized that viruses account for a vast portion of what he cared about most, the biological diversity of planet Earth. And he wrote an influential essay titled “The Little Things that Run the World.” He never mistook size for importance.

          Anyway, that’s what I did with my summer “vacation”: literary virology. So as not to sound like a drudge, I’ll add that there has also been time for a vast amount of dog-walking, a bit of cycling, a bit of gardening, and hours of diverse reading (including biographies of Khrushchev, Buster Keaton, and James Angleton) in the backyard. Plus, a continuing gambol across the green and unforgiving fields of golf. I hope your summer has been verdant and rich also.

         Did I say golf? Oh, yeah, sorry. It’s one of the things you do when you’re 74 years old and on your second pair of knees. Golf is healthy because it’s forever humbling, I’ve found, and you walk a lot. It’s interesting because it’s so hard. I suppose that’s the only thing it has in common with molecular evolutionary virology.






EBOLA: The Natural and Human History of a Deadly Virus



SPILLOVER: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic



THE CHIMP AND THE RIVER: How AIDS Emerged from an African Forest