The Big One

MAY 1, 2020

So here we are, amid a global pandemic of a disease called COVID-19, caused by a virus known as SARS-CoV-2. It’s terrible, and many people are suffering—suffering the disease, and suffering economic and social hardships related to the shutdowns necessitated by the disease. I’m relatively lucky: self-isolated with my wife, our two dogs, our cat, and our python, and all six of us are accustomed to working from home.
Many journalists, and some of my friends, have been asking me: “Were you surprised when this began?” I wasn’t surprised. Others have asked: “How does it feel to be prescient?” (My first thought: "I'd rather be wrong.") Anyway, I wasn’t prescient; I merely listened carefully to a select group of disease scientists, ten years ago, while I was researching my book Spillover (W.W. Norton, 2012), and I reported their well-informed predictions about the prospects of a “Next Big One,” a punishing global pandemic. What they told me back then, if you assemble their bits of wisdom and foresight into a single consensual summary (as I tried to do, over the course of the book), was this: Yes, there will be a Next Big One. It will be caused by a virus. That virus will be new to humans, coming out of a wild animal. What kind of animal? Very possibly a bat. What kind of virus? Very possibly an influenza virus or a coronavirus. Under what circumstances would the virus get into humans? Some situation of close, disruptive contact between humans and wild animals—such as in or around a wet market in, oh, for instance, China.
In early January of this year I was making plans to depart for Tasmania, Australia’s island state, for three weeks of research on Tasmanian devils and a strange form of contagious cancer that has been killing them wholesale in recent decades. This research was for a book that I’m writing about cancer as an evolutionary phenomenon. As I readied for the trip, I must have missed the earliest emails from ProMED, an infectious-disease reporting system to which I subscribe, about “an unidentified outbreak of viral pneumonia” in the city of Wuhan, China.
The first of the ProMED messages that did catch my attention, I think, came on January 13, quoting a World Health Organization statement about a “novel coronavirus” linked to the peculiar pneumonia and confirmed in a female Chinese tourist who had traveled from Wuhan to Thailand. The woman was hospitalized in an isolation ward and recovering well. Detecting and treating her, according to the Minister of Public Health, showed “the efficiency and effectiveness” of health care in Thailand. It was not a dramatic story. The word “coronavirus” caught my attention enough to prevent me from deleting that email. But I didn’t realize then that a very consequential new virus, later be called SARS-CoV-2, had made what seems to have been its first international move.
Reports continued and attention grew. I was busy revising an unrelated magazine story until, on January 21, an email arrived from an editor at The New York Times, asking whether I might care to write an Op-Ed about “the Wuhan virus.” I agreed, wrote the piece quickly, and it was published on January 28. (You’ll find a link to it on the left of this.) A week later, I departed for Tasmania. By then the virus story had spread just enough concern that I put two surgical masks in my briefcase, on the off chance—which I considered remote—that I might be required to wear one, three weeks later, on the planes coming home. I didn’t. Flying home on March 2, I saw only a few people in the airports wearing masks.
But by then the virus had spread, the story was getting bigger, and the disease toll more severe, not just in China, not just in Italy and Iran, but in the U.S. too, of course. This is where you all have your own stories to tell. As for me, my last day of going to the gym was March 10; since then it’s been home workouts and dog-walks. I haven’t been inside a building other than our own house in six weeks. Almost every day, for me, has been a day of being an interviewee for media around the world, because of Spillover, while trying to steal some time to continue being a writer as well. My book publisher, Simon & Schuster, has asked me to set aside, for now, the book on cancer and evolution, and write one about this pandemic. I’m quite aware that there will be a gaggle of COVID-19 books, and in ordinary times I do my best to stay distant from literary gaggles . . . but this seems like a responsibility, not an opportunity. So I’m now at work on a book about COVID-19.
In the stolen evening hours of some busy days, I’ve also been doing something else— online events, virtual bookstore discussions, with my wife Betsy Gaines Quammen, whose own book, American Zion: Cliven Bundy, God, and Public Lands in the West, was published on March 24 by Torrey House Press. We talk about both of our books, and the overlap between them, in the zone of public alarm and conspiratorial paranoia. If you care to see a rerun of any of those sessions (we call them the Betsy & Dave Show, but we don’t claim to be Ready for Prime Time), you can find them on Facebook, at the David Quammen and Betsy Gaines Quammen events page:

Meanwhile, stay safe, people. Stay sane, be well, keep smiling, listen to the music. Ask for evidence when someone tells you the latest hot rumor about SARS-CoV-2. Shake hands with friends using your feet, toast your neighbors from across the street on Fridays, and eventually we will reach the other side of this river of ecological challenge.



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