Spillover : animal infections and the next human pandemic

by David Quammen

Paperback, 2013




New York : W.W. Norton, [2013]


A masterpiece of science reporting that tracks the animal origins of emerging human diseases.

Media reviews

Human beings are restless, nosey and aggressive. These characteristics have made us one of the most invasive species our planet has ever encountered and allowed us to colonise nearly every terrestrial environment. During this progress, humans have made many acquisitions, several of them unwanted. Our constant movement between vast, populous cities and novel environments makes us easy prey for opportunistic pathogens that replicate fast, and transmit by sneezes and dirty hands before sickness even begins to show. These pathogens can spread around the world in hours by aeroplane to infect the unsuspecting on another continent. That's how "swine flu" spread in 2009; it was already unstoppable by the time we noticed it. We were lucky it wasn't particularly virulent.....

User reviews

LibraryThing member JBD1
In Spillover, David Quammen provides us with yet another of his masterful books, combining a readable synthesis of scientific research with personal interviews, experiences, and ruminations. This time it's not on natural selection or island biogeography, but on zoonotic diseases (illnesses which pass from animals to humans). From Marburg to AIDS to Hendra virus and Nipah, Quammen explains how scientists think these diseases come to the spillover point (when the pathogen passes from one species to another) and explores the consequences.

The book is absolutely terrifying, even though Quammen takes pains not to oversensationalize his subject (in fact he takes exception to Richard Preston's having done just that in The Hot Zone). It's simply the facts of the case as Quammen lays them out: these diseases are nasty, they're lurking, and sooner or later, one of them is very likely to cause "the next human pandemic." Since I don't follow the professional virological literature, I was astounded to learn about the role of bats (particularly large Asian fruit bats) as reservoir hosts of these nasty bugs; Quammen devotes much attention to this, to great effect.

While Spillover gets just a touch repetitive over the course of the book (the text of which runs to 520 pages), I didn't actually mind all that much, since the repeated bits generally proved a useful refresher. This is a book which I hope will have a large audience: as Quammen notes, humanity is anything but a passive actor when it comes to disease evolution and spread: our actions over the last centuries and decades have laid the groundwork for much of what may come, and we are, whether we like it or not, completely entangled in the ecological processes of our planet.

Terrifying, yes, but read it. You'll learn something.
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LibraryThing member streamsong
Zoonosis: any infection or disease that is transmitted to man from lower vertebrates
Spillover: that time point where the disease, which may have evolved through millennia with its animal host, comes in contact with a new host, including humans, and causes their infection.

This is a brilliant book of medical detection of past and present events and predictions of ‘the next big one’. Quammen is careful not to oversensationalize the story he carefully lays out in this 500 page book.

Quammen begins his story by recounting a recent zoonotic spillover event—the outbreak of Hendra virus in Australia that killed race horses and the people that work with them. He outlines the epidemiological detective work in determining the virus, its natural animal reservoir and the mode of transmission into racehorses. He speculates why the virus made the jump at this particular time.

And then he does it again with dozens more infectious outbreaks, each a puzzle of its own. Some of these are frightening with high death rates and overly sensational headlines: Ebola, SARS, Influenza, AIDS and the not quite as deadly Lyme disease. Others are less well known but are also killers : Q fever, psittacosis, typhus and even the vector borne malaria.

Each infection has an interesting story to tell by itself. Each one adds to the store of knowledge and we find the patterns:

----The next epidemic is liable to occur from a virus with RNA as its genome rather than DNA due to its high rate of mutation and evolution.

--A human to human disease with no animal reservoir can be eliminated from the planet (smallpox)—but one that lurks within an animal host cannot be eradicated without eliminating all the members of the natural host species.

--The deadly influenza outbreak of 1918 is liable to happen again as influenza has two host species (birds and swine) whose specifically evolved influenza viruses can recombine within a single host into deadly new combinations.

--AIDS/HIV most probably entered humans from a single spillover event from an infected ape in 1908. It sputtered along hidden in humans in the jungles of Africa until certain events made it explode into worldwide prevalence in the 1970’s. It has currently caused tens of millions of deaths. Are the small flares of Ebola evidence that it is following the same path?

Finally, Quammen gives the example of tent caterpillars whose numbers increase dramatically every few years. And then their population plummets when they reach a density where a caterpillar-killing virus wipes out almost-but-not-quite all of their population. When the numbers are low enough to contain viral spread, the population of caterpillars can once more begin to rise.

And at last points out the ubiquity of the human race and their exponential growth rate. As we become more and more mobile, and disturb more and more animal habitat with our increased numbers, is there any way to avoid the caterpillar’s fate?
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LibraryThing member aadyer
An excellent foray through old & new zoonosis, & the factors influencing their transmission, both human & non human. Genuinely frightening, but also insightful. Recommended for those with an interest in the subject & some technical knowledge.
LibraryThing member southernbooklady
"Infectious disease is all around us. Infectious disease is a king of natural mortar binding one creature to another, one species to another, within the elaborate biophysical edifices we call ecosystems." --David Quammen

That statement summarizes the one thing Quammen wants to get across in his book, the one point he wants drummed into our consciousnesses. We are not islands. We are not immune, or separate, or isolated, or apart from the world we live in. And Spillover, ostensibly a journalistic account of "zoonotic" diseases and the epidemics they have caused among us, is not only a warning to keep this point in mind, but also a kind of awe-struck exploration of its implications.

"Zoonotic" diseases, of course, are diseases we get from other animals--like rabies when we are bit by infected dogs or bats, Lyme diseases via ticks, H5N1--aka, the "Avian Flu" that comes from handling birds, etc. We don't often think about it, but the processes that allow an organism or a virus to inhabit one species, then jump (or "spill") over into another and successfully reproduce are complex, rather amazing, and fraught with significance when it comes to understanding our place in this giant ecosystem we call "Earth."

Quammen divides the book into sections, with each section focusing on one particular zoonotic pathogen. Hendra, Ebola, SARS..even Malaria, which turns out to have a complex history, part of which is zoonotic. There is an extensive section on HIV that is thorough, even-handed, and absolutely heart breaking. Each section traces the history of the disease, its first appearance, its most recent outbreaks, and the steps people who track such things take to identify, target, and combat it. The book has a ton of heroes, and not all of them are tramping through the bush looking for sick gorillas. Most of them are wearing white coats and working long hours in unremarkable laboratories at various Schools of Public Health.

Read a little ways in, and the odds are your stomach will go a little queasy over the unflinching description of what a horse infected with Hendra looks and sounds like as it is dying. Read a little further, and you will start to wonder if you shouldn't be stocking up on Purell, disinfectant wipes, and possibly Hazmat suits. But read further still, and something strange starts to happen. Instead of becoming increasingly overwhelmed with fear of the potential lethality of every innocuous bug bite, you become enmeshed in the author's portrayal of our seething and volatile environment. The more you read, the more you understand. The more you understand, the less you fear.

Years ago when I lived in Boston, there was a brief scare about West Nile Virus. A number of townships, responding to the panic, hired pest control companies to come spray the communities--a somewhat futile endeavor for places well-supplied in ponds, streams, rivers and lakes. The result was that many mosquitoes were killed, as we're many small fish in the ponds--the exact fish that normal fed off mosquito eggs. And the following season was the worst mosquito season on record. No West Nile Virus made an appearance, however.

The last section of Quammen's book takes us to task for our simplistic approach to things like disease outbreaks, our desire to find the "magic bullet" that will get rid of malaria, or HIV, or Flu, or even gypsy moths, once and for all. Nature, he makes abundantly clear, does not operate via magic bullets. It is a system of checks and balances, wherein every new "check" we create affects the balance of everything else. But if we can't conquer these zoonotic diseases, we can perhaps control them, minimizing the risk they pose and the damage they can do. Until the next unlooked-for pandemic hits, that's the best strategy we've got.

Which, on a micro level, means that you should go ahead and get your flu shot.
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LibraryThing member Sullywriter
A fascinating, riveting, and terrifying look at zoonotic viruses. It seems likely that the next pandemic will result from our ongoing destruction of rainforest habitats. I've also decided that if I ever do have the opportunity to visit China I'm going to bring my own food.
LibraryThing member anothersheart
David Quammen's adventures have me trembling! The knowledge of all the "Spillover" that has already occured throughout the world intensifies the fear that perhaps the end of man kind will be the results of some crazy virus. Very informative and interesting read. I am giving it a solid 4 stars and passing it on to my Literature & Science professor.

My rating system is as follows:

5 stars - Excellent, Worth Every Penny, Made It Into My Personal Library!
4 stars - Great book, but not a classic.
3 stars - Good overall, generally well written.
2 stars - Would not recommend based on personal criteria.
1 star - Difficult to read, hard to finish, or didn't finish. Wouldn't recommend purchasing or reading.

In accordance with the FTC Guidelines for blogging and endorsements, you should assume that every book I review was provided to me by the publisher, media group or the author for free and no financial payments were received, unless specified otherwise.
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LibraryThing member bragan
The word "zoonosis" refers to diseases in animals that "spill over" to infect humans, and a lot of familiar and frightening diseases qualify, from Ebola to AIDS to influenza to SARS. David Quammen looks at all of those and more in this thorough examination of zoonoses. He traces the history of individual diseases, delves into the science of disease transmission and evolution, talks to many people engaged in researching the subject, visits the sites of outbreaks, and accompanies scientists into the field. It's all very detailed, sometimes a bit technical, and very calm and measured (despite that sensational-sounding "next human pandemic" thing in the subtitle and the frankly terrifying cover), but also written with style and entirely comprehensible even if you don't know much about medicine or biology. It's also pretty fascinating. I will say that 520 pages on the subject does seem like a bit much, but everything's interesting and informative enough that I honestly can't imagine what I might advise cutting out.… (more)
LibraryThing member AnnieMod
Do you know what is zoonosis? No? Don't worry - you will know on page 14 and by page 100, you will know so much about it that you will not even remember you did not know what it is. Why would you want to know what it is? Because it is important and because even if you do not know it, you are seeing it every day - flu season for example is caused by it.

Zoonosis is an animal infection transmittable to humans. And the main topic of this book. Quammen is not a scientist and admits that readily but he is a science author and he had met a lot of scientists - from all possible sides of the ecology and biology worlds. The book is full of information - some of it easily read and understood, some of it very technical - and in that second part is where the ability of Quammen to boil it down to the important points without dumbing it down shines. Add to this a dark sense of humor shown all through the book in places where you least expect and the book does not read as a dry textbook without loosing the knowledge that you may find in one.

Quammen had spent years chasing the viruses that can and make the leap between animals and humans. He did not just sit in a library somewhere reading about it - he actually went to see the scientists - some of them in their modern offices all over the world; some of them in the middle of a jungle somewhere. And when he needed more materials, he did not even talk to the scientists, he just found a local guide and when down a river somewhere in Africa - going after the story, looking at what may be the next one. Because the goal of the book is to look at what happened and why not as a history or a review but as a basis of an attempt to understand what may happen next. And the scary answer is - noone knows.

The parade of diseases and viruses is going chapter by chapter - some of them popular (Ebola, AIDS/HIV-1, influenza, Lyme) , some of them names that you may have heard in passing(SARS, Marburg), some of them you may not even heard of (Hendra - although if you are from Australia, you may have heard of that one). It's part history of the virus itself, part history of the disease and how it evolved, part history of the scientists that isolated it or died trying (and some names will show almost everywhere), part history of the way Quammen discovered the story. He is a journalist before everything so all this is also sprinkled with descriptions of laboratories and university campuses, interviews and meetings, papers and publications. And even if each chapter talks about a single virus (or a group of related ones), the previous pieces snap into place and the analysis uses everything to keep driving the same things over and over in your mind - the animal kingdom has a lot of viruses that we do not know about and any of them can come out and get us - not because it is a malicious little thing but because this is how the nature works.

It is chilling to read how much of what is happening is caused by what we had done. HIV-1 most likely dispersed as fast and as wide partially because of the political situation in Africa - all those expats that were expelled from the new countries and the numerous number of people that went into the countries post independence to help moved and brought viruses with them - and partially because of the state of medical science at the time and the poverty of people in certain countries. One of them ended up being HIV. Just a question of bad luck. But that is just the tip of the iceberg. the ecology is changing so the animals need to change their behaviour and where they live - and this leads to the viruses that are harmless for them to look for new places to thrive... and a virus that is safe in one species is a killer in another. Or sometimes it is still harmless in that second species but then when it jumps one more time, it becomes really bad (Hendra for example).

One thing that this book will do as well is to never look at a bat at the same way you did before - first because there are way too many types of them and second because they seem to carry a lot of those bad viruses. Quammen makes the point that with the number of their species, it was inevitable but still - a bat is a bat... I am pretty sure that by the middle of the book I had lost track of which species caused what exactly but it is not that important unless if you are a scientist. The same for the different kind of monkeys (both in Asia and Africa) - keeping them straight in your head is important to see the connections but Quammen is pretty good at reminding you what else they did.

And as a journalist, he does not presume knowledge. Every time when he goes very technical (and he needs to in a few places), he breaks the barrier and talks directly to the reader - yes, this is hard to understand but it is kinda important... and there isn't too much of it. When he did for math topics, I smiled (my background is there), when he did it for biology themes, I could agree with him - my head hurt from just reading that particular passage.

The book is a bit uneven - the first and last chapters are smoothly running even when they cover a lot of ground but in the middle, the book stalls a bit. There is only so many ways to say that RNA viruses are bad and why; that bats are causing issues and why. And it piles on top of the previous section - it does not make it boring or unreadable but it slows down - it feels as if too many details on the same topics had been crammed. I suspect that it is because he did talk to way too many scientists and decided to go through their stories anyway but maybe a summary of some of those would have worked better. The book picks up its pace though - when there is enough theories to go around. Maybe the problem in that middle section was that there are no theories left there - nor there were too many to start with in that particular topic and there are not so many non-science things to say - so things repeat themselves.

One place where Quammen fails is when he tries to be a fiction writer and imagine how HIV-1 moved from the isolated village where the spillover happened and conquered the region. His prose is flat and boring... he tries to create characters and he fails to - miserably so. The conjecture of what might have happened could have been great in someone else's hands but in his, it just does not work. Thankfully it is just a couple of sections (out from 115) and they are so easily marked that you can just skip them without reading them (well... I did... but wish I had skipped them). Which does not make the book weaker at the end - but it would have been a lot stringer without them.

Considering the topic, calling it a wonderful book is probably not such a great idea but it is. It is the proper mix between adventure and science and history to work - and it lacks ANY of the paranoia that similar books tend to contain. It is reporting - from decades of work and centuries of history with one question at the end - what will be the next one. And as I already mentioned, that is the answer that we may never find until it actually happens.
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LibraryThing member bgknighton
I would have given it 4 stars if he didn't like the sound of his voice quite so much. A really good, thorough coverage of the theory and history of zoonosis and pandemics. Focuses on ape derived ones, such as AIDS, but covers a lot of territory.
LibraryThing member mossland
I have seen the spillover, and it is us.
LibraryThing member HenryKrinkle
David Quammen, a very good writer, investigates the possible source of the next great pandemic. He weakens the book by making incessant asides to the reader ("Don't worry, I had a hard time understanding the math involved myself.?" That kind of thing. It's pretty annoying.) If you're interested in virology and global health issues, Laurie Garrett's "The Coming Plague", written almost 20 years ago covers much of the same ground and is much better journalism. Quammen's last chapter, a bravura piece of speculative writing makes the book worth reading. Like Bill Hicks said "We're just a virus with shoes."… (more)
LibraryThing member LisaMorr
I picked this book up a couple of years ago and started to read it after we had our Ebola scare here in the US. Excellent book - he tackles Ebola, HIV, influenza, malaria and a bunch of diseases I hadn't heard of before and won't forget now. He covers each disease like a mini-mystery - I really found the book interesting. Highly recommended.… (more)
LibraryThing member mtome
Enjoyed the learning!
LibraryThing member UberButter
Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen
585 pages

★★★ ½

This book title is pretty self explanatory. It’s about diseases that are passed on from animal to human – some major and well known (such as Ebola, HIV, influenza) and others not so well known (such as Hendra) and a discussion of their causes and studies or if a cause is even known. It is definitely an interesting book but not for everyone for sure. It is very science based, which is to be expected. At times the author gives this attitude as if his reader may be a bit too special to understand more in-depth concepts. I’d be offended if he wasn’t right. It’s a good overview but since I’m not well educated in sciences or math and since even some simple concepts went over my head, I am actually glad the author did his best to stay away from the complex (although he does give references to other books that do go into more detail if interested). The author did a fair amount of research, interviews, and travel to get a grasp on this book. It’s a lot to take in and not meant for a little light reading. This book was almost a month long endeavor for me, with a sprinkling of other books when I needed a break.

I would have given this book 4 stars but it was given a small knock down for one annoyance. Towards the end, there is a long discussion on HIV – that isn’t the annoyance. The annoyance stems from the fact that for the first 450 pages, it is a very matter-of-fact, scientific book but suddenly he goes into a loooong story of who the first person may have been (no one is 100% sure) and goes into how this person grew up sad and a loner and left his town, liked to fish, sold an elephant tusk, blah blah blah. Speculation is interesting; the making up of an entire person’s life is a little overboard when it had little to do with anything. Aside from that issue, I learned a lot from this book and feel a bit more educated on the zoonotic (diseases transfers from animal to human) happenings and research – even if I am a bit more squeamish because of it.
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LibraryThing member PaulRx04
Heavy reading, but important. Mankind faces some serious
problems which are coming faster and faster.
LibraryThing member jen.e.moore
This was terrific - Quammen does a great job of turning a complex, scary subject into something comprehensible (and still scary - but not nearly as bad as it was before). It feels weird to complement the writing on a book like this, but the writing really was superb, clear and intelligible, funny sometimes, never more dramatic than the data calls for. I feel smarter after reading this, which is what good nonfiction should do.… (more)
LibraryThing member RajivC
When I started to read the book, I noticed that it has 115 chapters, and I thought I would die.

The book, however, is more exciting than many murder thrillers. David Quammen possesses a unique gift. He has taken a subject that can drown you with technical detail, or terrify you, and convert it into a book that enthralls the reader.

The stories are fascinating. So is the science in the book. I am not an expert in this field, but I came away with a fair understanding of how viruses and other microscopic entities can wreak havoc.

There is a fair warning that he leaves for us. We, humans, have multiplied: we are an outbreak. We have interfered with the natural order of the world. It is fair to assume that we may be visited by epidemics and pandemics more frequently in the future.

It appears that we will be playing catch up with the everchanging world of viruses and their ilk.
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LibraryThing member aleph123
The book in and itself would be between 2.5 and 3*

The writing is long-winded and here and there is inclining toward gossip and fiction more than science reporting

On the narrative/writing style, it was better "Congo" by Crichton (the book often make you think to that predecessor).

Nonetheless, it is informative- and gets a 3.5* mainly because... for reasons unknown, instead of sharing as a reference other books that discussed the transition from bats to humans of viruses, this book generated more interviews with the author.

In Italy, it resulted also in a new edition of the book (I read the English version).

Anyway, if you liked "Guns, Germs, and Steel" by Diamond, probably this book (albeit also in this case I liked more Diamond's writing style) could add some few ideas and points.

Beside the obvious reason for reading the book now (COVID-19), it is interesting to read it also as a framework of ecological systemic thinking.

So, forgetting that it is about viruses and their cross-species lifecycle, it could be useful for other purposes and conceptual analyses

Therefore, if boring at times, worth reading

[Review released on 2020-06-06]
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LibraryThing member whitewavedarling
Quammen's discussion and investigation of zoonotic viruses is a fascinating ride, and reads more like a mystery or novel of intrigue than nonfiction focused into science and history. From chapter to chapter, he takes readers through the questions and the histories that surround animal-based viruses that make the jump from their host animal to humans in 'spillover' events, and does so in a fashion that any reader can follow and engage with.

Whether dealing with interviews, history, hard science, journeys to unravel questions re. hosts or nature, or speculation about what's to come, each moment of the text is frighteningly readable, and moves so quickly that the book is difficult to walk away from. This is an impressive work, and well worth reading--for anyone.

Absolutely recommended.
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LibraryThing member Daumari
Zoonotic diseases are reminders that we are in fact made of the same stuff as the rest of the natural world- viruses hijack our cells' replication mechanisms, bacteria lurking in a rat finds a home in our bodies, etc. Quammen takes a very thorough look at these for a popular audience, with each section about different types of disease or commonality that links many.

For instance, it never occurred to me that bats could be a huge, huge vector for types of viruses. But they do explain the spread of Nipah, Marburg, and possibly Ebola (very mobile, large population density, and when they poop it goes everywhere). Part historical view, part travelogue shadowing scientists in the field makes for a comprehensive picture of what is known and where to look next.

In the epilogue Quammen considers the word 'outbreak'- a giant population influx in a short amount of time, often used for disease but also for insects (like the cicada one due any time on the east coast). Insect outbreaks are usually kept in check by viruses. As we speed past 7 billion humans, we're certainly in the middle of our own outbreak on the planet so... are we due for a pandemic? The answer is probably yes, but we can be smart about our habits and practices to prevent a larger toll.
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