Spillover

By DAVID QUAMMEN

Between the hard-core science of Science and the popularizers in, say, Popular Science, there is a blessed band of writers who know how to make science sing. David Quammen is one of them; maybe, probably, the best. He has an easy, elegant hand at making the complexities of science intelligible — like, for example, the mysteries of zoonosis, animal infections that are transmissible to humans. That’s the subject of Spillover, the new book by this skillful storyteller whose true stories are dramatically real. Quammen is a believer in fieldwork: If a locale is pestilential enough for monkeypox or plague, Ebola or Marburg, that’s where he wants to be.

The names are exotic, almost boutique: Machupo, Junin, Chickungunya, Nipah, Hendra. Only a few are dryly familiar — HIV-1 and HIV-2, for instance. But infections that jump from nonhumans to humans are anything but rare; 60 percent of infectious diseases either routinely cross or have recently crossed from animals to us. And as we merrily go tearing our ecosystems apart, unheard-of pathogens are being invited into the light of day, their reservoirs disturbed, looking for new hosts. Humans, as it happens, very often fit the bill. Sometimes the emergent diseases briefly wreak deadly havoc before their evolutionary gambit fails and they fold back again to who knows where, present but unaccounted for. Sometimes, as with the Spanish influenza and AIDS, they kill tens of millions.

Quammen gains entry into the spooky world of pathogenic emergence through a handful of spillover events, when the pathogen passed from members of one species to another. With each event he has a story to tell; his pace is easeful, even if his topic is not. There is background material to introduce, landscape to sketch, people to speak with. There are as many people as there are bats in this book — and there are many, many bats, mostly of the big, foxy variety that seemingly harbor every lowly pathogen in existence, unless the ticks and spiders have cornered them (and monkeys, sadly, too) — coming and going with a fluid, damascene intricacy.

Spillover is a rich survey, touching down in Australia to explore abattoir fever or on the East Coast of America to contemplate parrot fever. It looks long and discerningly at the market for wild animals, particularly as bush meat, whether it is a putrefying monkey found on an African forest floor and brought back to the village for supper or the conspicuous consumption of unusual meats to gratify the Chinese “Era of Wild Flavor,” though that civet cat will probably give you a good dose of severe acute respiratory syndrome.

In New England, the loss of biodiversity — owls, foxes, weasels — leads to an increase in mice and shrews, which host the deer tick as if they were throwing an endless party. There are enough caves here for all the bats: “The footing was bad: rocky, uneven, slick with bat guano. The smell was bad too: fruity and sour. Think of a dreary barroom, closed and empty, with beer on the floor at 3 a.m.” There is a wonderful piece of informed imagination, following the sooty mangabey, a dapper chimneysweep of a creature, a vegetarian swamp dweller, an edible vermin, and a conveyor of HIV. The pathogens feel remote and immediate at once, and scary.

Scary, but luminous. This isn’t Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone. Quammen entertains, but instead of doing the wondering for us he wants us to wonder, since so much of how these pathogens operate is a mystery. He provides the raw material — all that science has painstakingly learned about grisly viruses and crafty bacteria — to summon the menacing possibilities.

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