David Quammen

David Quammen

Speaker Bio:

David Quammen is an American science, nature, and travel writer and the author of fifteen books.

For 15 years he wrote a column called "Natural Acts" for Outside magazine. His articles have also appeared in National Geographic, Harper's, Rolling Stone, the New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker, and other periodicals.


THE GREAT REMINDER: Zoonoses, Pandemic, and Human Connectedness

The COVID-19 pandemic is a devastating event that was heartbreakingly predictable. It was predicted, with some degree of precision, by certain scientists who study zoonotic diseases (those caused by animal infections transmissible to humans).  It was also predicted by me, in my 2012 book Spillover, not because I was prescient, but because I interviewed many of those scientists and collated their predictions. What they said was: Yes, there will be a Next Big One, a severe pandemic event. It will be caused by a zoonotic virus, newly emerged from an animal. What sort of virus? Very possibly an influenza or a coronavirus. What sort of animal? Very possibly a primate or a bat. Where will this occur? Somewhere humans have close contact with wild animals, carrying such viruses—for instance, in or near a wet market . . . for instance, in China. 

Spillovers of new animal viruses into humans are increasingly probable in our modern world, because the size and the consumptive hungers of our human population are causing ever-more ecological disruption. Ecological disruption gives animal viruses the opportunity to infect people. When such spillovers occur, the connectedness of the human population—we live in dense cities, we travel around the world by airplane—make it ever more likely that a spillover may become a local outbreak, a local outbreak may become an epidemic, an epidemic may become a pandemic. 

This woeful event, Covid-19, is costly in lives and in misery. It's also costly in money, costly in economic hardship, costly in emotional and psychological toll. The only silver lining is that it is a great reminder of two important realities. First, it reminds us that we humans are animals too. If we weren't, then animal viruses—from bats, from chimpanzees, from rodents—couldn't so easily infect us. We are part of the natural world, not separate from nature, not above nature. Secondly, it reminds us of the fateful importance of connectedness. Human connectedness is what allows a local outbreak of disease to become a pandemic. 

But human connectedness is also what allows us to console one another, to help one another, and to solve complicated problems—such as vaccine development, therapeutics development, and coordinated pandemic preparedness. Connectedness is one of our greatest vulnerabilities, but also one of our greatest advantages. We can talk together and think together in a way that other animals can't. That's the good news.

UPDATED: February 06, 2023

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