He is also, like everyone, appreciative of Zoom. His latest book, Breathless, was born this way, on the social platform, during the early stages of the pandemic, when the movement of people was severely limited to prevent SARS-CoV-2 from spreading even more and even more rapidly. Video calls and conference calls with 95 scientists and experts from all over the world, closed in his studio in Montana, with The Plague of Albert Camus keeping him company. “Unlike other books I have written, and for reasons you will understand, this one was researched without benefit of traveling to remote places and witnessing arduous fieldwork; without walking through jungles in the footsteps of doughty biologists, visiting laboratories, climbing up cliffs and across rooftops and through caves; without watching researchers stalk gorillas with tranquilizer guns or draw blood from bats”. This time the frisson has taken on a different form for “Mister Spillover”, the writer who became famous all over the world for having “predicted” the pandemic. David Quammen answers our questions from Korea, waiting for a flight to Singapore. And before arriving in Italy to present his latest book. We see him again after two years and six and a half million deaths.
Mr. Quammen, you too recently fell ill with Covid. Can we finally say that it has become a seasonal flu and the pandemic an epidemic?
Whatever you call Covid at this stage in time — still a pandemic, or now an endemic disease — is just a matter of semantics and definitions. Some people say the pandemic is over, and we’ve now entered the “endemic” stage. But they haven’t defined “endemic”. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that 1) Yes, the worst stages of Covid-19 as an affliction causing overflows in hospitals and too many fatalities for the mortuaries to keep up — those stages are over. But 2) the virus is not gone, the disease is not gone, and many people continue to die. The virus does not seem to have evolved into a less harmful creature. It may never evolve to be less harmful. Those who say that such decreases in virulence are inevitable for a virus — those people simply do not understand viral evolution. This virus will be with us forever, and it may, or it may not, continue to kill and sicken many people.
Which are the specific characteristics of last variants of the virus such as Omicron or Centaurus?
The Omicron variant carries a large number of mutations that distinguish it from earlier variants, and it has shown itself over the past year to be considerably more transmissible, but not more virulent, than earlier variants. Also, it has shown a robust capacity to mutate further, evolve further, and develop a large branching pattern of subvariants. Public health officials are watching it closely. It was identified, given a code label, and eventually named “Omicron” through a careful process by professional virologists and by public health officials at the WHO. What has been casually called “Centaurus” is one of the subvariants of Omicron. It seems to have first appeared in India, early this year, and spread quickly there and in some other countries. Its official code label is BA.2.75. The name “Centaurus” is an amateur’s nickname, given to it by someone on Twitter, and only serves to confuse the orderly naming process that scientists have set in place. The naming of viruses is important because these simple names help the public understand what is what. But the naming should be done by professionals, in my opinion, and not by every wackadoodle on Twitter who thinks he or she has come up with a clever nickname.
These variants of the virus seem less aggressive. Why? Could this be due to the vaccine?
The fact that many people have now been vaccinated has indeed decreased the number of severe cases of Covid. Vaccinated people may still become infected and feel symptoms (as I did, in September), but generally their illness is likely to be far less severe. That is a different matter from (though entangled with) the matter of whether the newer variants are less virulent. Some of them may be, but the difference is hard for scientists to measure, while there are so many unknowns that contribute to the severity of each case.
With Covid-19 something went strong. What went wrong?
Three things went wrong to cause the pandemic of Covid: 1) There was a spillover of an animal virus into humans, or perhaps into just one human at the very beginning; 2) that spillover led to a small chain of infections, an outbreak, one person transmitting the virus to another, in the city of Wuhan, before scientists and public health officials realized it was a new virus at work; and then 3) a failure of vigilance, a failure of prompt investigation and firm response, and a failure of imagination by local and national leaders, allowed the outbreak to spread from Wuhan, by fast transportation of infected people, to the world. And we had a pandemic.
Sinche the Covid-19 pandemic struck, you hit Zoom and interviewed more than 95 scientists and health experts around the world. We talk about the origins of SARS-CoV-2.
The consensus among those scientists most qualified to answer this question is that the virus SARS-CoV-2 is a natural, wild virus, which took shape by Darwinian evolution, including both mutation shaped by natural selection and the process of recombination (switching of sections between viruses infecting one animal); that it originated as a bat virus, probably living in horseshoe bats in southern China; that it may have acquired some of its features by recombination with other bat coronaviruses or coronaviruses from other mammals (such as pangolins or raccoon dogs); and that it probably spilled over from its host animal during contact between that animal, or an intermediate animal, into humans.
You don’t believe in lab-leak hypothesis.
There is also a small chance, logically possible but not supported by any evidence, that the natural virus spilled into humans in a laboratory. This so-called lab-leak hypothesis has been persistent and popular in some circles because it is more dramatic; because some people prefer to believe in dark, sinister stories; and because the natural origin of the virus has not yet been definitively identified. The lab-leak idea is fervently supported by a number of accusative voices, in print and on social media. Some of them, though only a few, are scientists. The rest are amateurs. Among the scientists who advocate this view, none that I know of is a molecular evolutionary virologist. They are unqualified to claim the degree of certitude to which they pretend.
You write that the pandemic is the results of a “double accident”.
This terminology, of a “double accident” that resulted in the pandemic, comes from the work of a scientist named Roger Frutos, and from my interview with him on the subject of what he and his colleagues call the “circulation model” of new zoonotic diseases—that is, animal infections that become human infections. The first accident, according to Frutos, was when a natural virus from a wild animal, probably a bat, spilled over into one or perhaps several humans during some form of close contact. The second accident was when the virus, taking hold in its first human victims, found the opportunity to spread widely from human to human. That second accident, in the case of SARS-CoV-2, was that the virus found itself in humans who crowded together in great density and close personal contact for the Spring Festival in the city of Wuhan in January 2020.
With Sars-CoV-2 the world seems to have been hit suddenly. In reality, what you say in your book is that the world has been suffering from an attention deficit…
The world was not hit, in December 2019 and January 2020, with anything that scientists had not been predicting rather precisely for twenty years: a pandemic caused by a novel coronavirus, probably having spilled over from a bat. Nonscientists always suffer from deficit of attention to science, unfortunately, because they are distracted by the exigencies of earning their livings and caring for their children, and by all the stories that flicker on their screens with shiny and material and melodramatic distractions. This part isn’t new. But in 2020 it became especially unfortunate.
Which countries have best dealt with the pandemic?
Certain countries, which had the advantages of natural isolation, strong public health systems, strong national governance, memory of past epidemic challenges, and public spirit that was inclined toward concern for the welfare of others as well as the liberties of oneself, did conspicuously better, at least during the early stages of the pandemic, in controlling the spread and devastation of the virus. For instance: Singapore, South Korea, Japan, China, Iceland, and New Zealand. But even those countries, or at least some of them, have suffered their own later flare-ups and waves of the disease. Why? Because, as Tony Fauci told me, it’s an especially “nefarious, insidious” virus.
So SARS-CoV-2 left us Breathless…
The virus left us breathless in two senses: it literally took breath away from suffering people by inflaming cells lining their airways, and it required scientists to make a breathless, speedy, and unrelenting effort to understand the virus and create vaccines and antivirals to battle it.
Without vaccines, where would we be?
Without vaccines, we would be in a grim, modern version of the fourteenth century, losing large segments of our human population at regular intervals to pandemics of smallpox, measles, polio, yellow fever, diphtheria, and other infectious diseases. Except it might be worse than the fourteenth century, because the new infections, unlike the bubonic plague, would have the advantage of burning through much larger, more crowded cities, and riding airplanes to find new victims.
Do you think in this time scientists communicated the information and complex scientific ideas to a general audience well? In Italy we have had a great confusion…
It has always been difficult for scientists to communicate the realities of science to the general public—because the realities of science are that it is a complex human process of learning, of provisional establishment of hypotheses, of supporting those hypotheses with evidence, and of revising the hypotheses when new evidence suggests that they need revising, all of this leading toward an ever more accurate, but never absolutely finished, understanding of the physical world. It’s not the job of scientists to tell that complex story of process and provisionality to the general public. Their job, of doing the research and the analysis, is already hard enough. The job of communicating science therefore falls on middlemen and middlewomen, professional science communicators. This is fortunate for me, because I’m one of those middlemen, and it allows me to pursue a role that gives me great satisfaction and also to make a living. Sometimes the general public become confused and frustrated because science is not a fixed and unchanging body of truths; its conclusions change as the body of evidence changes. It’s the duty of us science communicators to try to alleviate that confusion and frustration by helping the general public understand, not just what science says, but what science is.
Do you think the scientific community has lived up to the pandemic?
We all make mistakes. Scientists are humans. The most harmful mistakes in the saga of Covid-19 have been made, not by scientists, but by politicians, such as the narcissistic buffoon who was President of my country when Covid-19 began.
In Italy, the new government has decided to communicate the Covid-infection bulletin only once a week, and no longer every day. Do you think this is correct?
I believe it’s good to offer the public as much information as possible about the status of Covid infections as they occur. That said, I am not going to criticize current or former Italian governments for their performance during Covid-19. That is for Italians to judge. I have enough to answer for as a citizen of the USA, whose voters gave our own country an impossibly unsatisfactory leader, an embarrassment before the world, for four years.
Do you think that in this period whoever had doubts or showed perplexity has been marginalized?
No. I think we still have enough freedom of speech and breadth of attention that those with doubts and perplexities, on one side of these questions or another, have been able to make themselves heard. We live in a modern cacophony of varied voices. The only voices amid the scientific discourse that I see as having been marginalized are those that marginalized themselves by failure to observe the standards of rigorous scientific presentation of evidence.
What could we learn from this pandemic?
Perhaps we should all go back and reread (as I did, during early weeks of the pandemic) La Peste by Camus. It shows us, with the greatest literary skill, that humans faced with a horrific plague will be what humans always are: various: some heroic and stalwart and selfless, some craven and fearful and ignoble.
What should we expect for the future? Could we ever really say goodbye to Covid? What will be the first pandemic?
We will not say goodby to Covid any more than we can say goodbye to death or taxes. We will learn to live with it and control, but probably never eliminate, its menace. We won’t forget about it until we are distracted by something worse. But if we can persevere, and even control the worst of the coming pandemic threats, if we trust science and care for one another.