Book Review

Michal Barski

David Quammen:
Spillover: Animal infections and the next human pandemic.

Paperback: 592 pages
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition (September 9, 2013)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0393346617
ISBN-13: 978-0393346619
Price: 12.00 USD

The last few years have been good to popular microbiology. After Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 medical thriller Contagion, David Quammen’s new book is bringing layman’s viral epidemiology to a whole new level.

Zoonosis – a fairly unfamiliar term, even among the diverse life science community. But it is a word worth remembering, as we will be seeing it more often in science and on the news. Microbes, which at some point in history “jumped” to the human population from another species (i.e. are zoonotic), contribute to 60% of human infectious diseases. These include established germs such as influenza or rabies and the acronyms that have gained them publicity over the last few decades: HIV, Ebola, SARS. But there are also plenty that, until now, have hardly ever hit the headlines: Hendra virus, Crimean-Congo Haemorrhagic Fever virus and Lassa virus amongst them. And most importantly, there are probably countless others hiding in their natural hosts and waiting for the best opportunity to “spill over”.

Aedes aegypti on attack! Photo: US Department of Agriculture

This is not scaremongering. The emergence of new zoonoses is already becoming a serious medical problem. The globalisation of travel and trade means just as much for viruses as it does for people. Climate change mixed with the emergence of new natural habitats is certainly leading to a very bitter cocktail. Take the yellow fever mosquito (Aedes aegypti) that brings us dengue fever, chikungunya and yellow fever. It once lived exclusively in Africa but is now found in many European countries, including Spain, France and Italy.

David Quammen’s new book, Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, is not a popular science crash course in molecular virology. It is probably the first ever comprehensive non-fiction adventure detective story that portrays viruses and virus-hunters in the lead roles. The plot hinges upon finding the very source of these infections – their “reservoir host” – a case of finding a micro-needle in a jungle-sized haystack. Once found, the infection mechanisms and their protection strategy can be established. It is also a hunt for “The Next Big One”, the virus that will cause the next spillover, and its location.

Plenty of work, plenty of play

Quammen does his science homework (the bibliography is 40 pages long!) and does not cut corners. You will not see much second-hand data, as, whenever possible, Quam­men goes all the way from his quiet home in Montana through central Africa down to Australia, joining scientific expeditions and visiting labs – not only observing but actually taking part in the research.

Whether it is tracking Ebola-infected gorillas, catching monkeys in Bangladesh or discussing phylogenetic data, his reporting is extremely precise and logical. Despite his tendency to say, “People like reading about people”, he is not afraid of introducing quite advanced scientific concepts to, what in most cases will be, a non-scientific readership. Nor does he shy away from backing up the story with experimental data either. “The cell cultures remained blithely unspotted by viral blooms” is how he describes the negative result of a plaque assay.

Intertwined with often graphic depictions of expeditions and epidemic sites is a story of the people behind the discoveries – the scientific community of modern virologists, whose work might save thousands of lives. Quammen keeps company with some of the brightest minds in the field (often literally) as well as local wild-life specialists from afar. The scientists’ obsession with their research sometimes balances on the verge of absurdity. Such as when a pathologist in Congo dissects a chimp carcass that is potentially carrying Ebola and is stung by a swarm of bees nesting in the animal. When the doctor is challenged with, “Why do you do this?”, we hear, “I really love my job”.

A journey with no happy ending?

Whilst Spillover is a classic of the genre, it will not appeal to everyone. The book is a chunky, almost 600-page tome and some readers will tire of Quammen’s habit of cataloguing every surname, date, institution, village and river encountered. People from neighbouring disciplines will probably complain about lack of substantial discussion of the molecular aspects of zoonosis, whereas readers used to a more entertaining style may find Quammen’s rigorous approach off-putting. Nevertheless, this will be a fascinating read for those who are not afraid to go on a sometimes challenging journey, possibly without a happy ending.

Letzte Änderungen: 21.03.2014