The next big and murderous human pandemic, the one that kills us in millions, will be caused by a new disease–new to humans, anyway. The bug that’s responsible will be strange, unfamiliar, but it won’t come from outer space. Odds are that the killer pathogen–most likely a virus–will spill over into humans from a nonhuman animal.
Spillover is a work of science reporting, history, and travel, tracking this subject around the world. For five years, I shadowed scientists into the field–a rooftop in Bangladesh, a forest in the Congo, a Chinese rat farm, a suburban woodland in Duchess County, New York-and through their high-biosecurity laboratories. I interviewed survivors and gathered stories of the dead. I found surprises in the latest research, alarm among public health officials, and deep concern in the eyes of researchers. I tried hard to deliver the science, the history, the mystery, and the human anguish as page-turning drama.
From what innocent creature, in what remote landscape, will the Next Big One emerge? A rodent in southern China? A monkey in West Africa? A bat in Malaysia that happens to roost above a pig farm, from which hogs are exported to Singapore? In this age of speedy travel between dense human populations, an emerging disease can go global in hours. But where and how will it start? Recent outbreaks offer some guidance, and so I traced the origins of Ebola, Marburg, SARS, avian influenza, Lyme disease, and other bizarre cases of spillover, including the grim, unexpected story of how AIDS began from a single Cameroonian chimpanzee.
The subject raises urgent questions. Are these events independent misfortunes, or linked? Are they merely happening to us, or are we somehow causing them? What can be done? But this book is intended to be more than a work of reportage. It’s also the tale of a quest, through time and landscape, for a new understanding of how the world works.
Read David’s OpEds:
Ebola and the New Isolationism, Time Inc., October 6, 2014
Ebola Virus: A Grim, African Reality, New York Times, April 9, 2014
Anticipating the Next Pandemic, New York Times, September 22, 2012