The 2014 epidemic of Ebola virus disease in West Africa is unlike any Ebola event ever seen before. In fact, as of this writing, it’s already ten times larger in terms of case fatalities—ten times more punishing to Africans, ten times more scary and befuddling to people around the world—than any single outbreak of an ebolavirus (there are five kinds) during the previous known history of the disease. The peculiarly unfortunate circumstances that allowed this outbreak to simmer for months and then explode in the three countries first affected, and especially in Liberia, include weakened governance after decades of civil turmoil, inadequate health-care infrastructure, shortage of trained health-care workers and simple barrier-nursing supplies, population density and poverty in the capital cities, suspicion of Western medicine, and traditional funerary practices. Those factors, and the progress of the epidemic, have been charted in some of the best of the news coverage, including this story by Canadian reporter Helen Branswell, and this one from a team at The Washington Post.
I value such news reporting as much as anyone, but my own role as a writer is different; I cover science and science history at greater length and slower speed. Still, as the epidemic became more severe in late August, my British publisher asked me to move quickly, for a change, and draw together the sections concerning Ebola virus from my 2012 book Spillover and, by editing and rearranging them into a stand-alone structure, to create a small book that could be published promptly. I’ve done that, adding a new Introduction, and a new Epilogue about the events of 2014. The result is Ebola: The Natural and Human History of a Deadly Virus, published by Random House in the United Kingdom in early October and by W.W. Norton in the United States on October 20. This is a book for people who are too busy, in an urgent and nervous time, or otherwise disinclined by lack of interest in the broader topic, to read Spillover. Its purpose is to give readers, including hurried news people and public officials as well as ordinary readers, a concise but substantive understanding of Ebola virus within its scientific, historical, and geographical contexts.
Ebola comes from the African forest. I’ve been there, shadowing the footsteps of some courageous researchers; I’ve also had opportunity, over the course of six years’ work on Spillover, to study the scientific literature on Ebola and to talk with some of the world’s foremost experts. I hope that what they have learned about Ebola virus and its doings can be of some help in the situation where we find ourselves now.
The next big and murderous human pandemic, the one that kills us in millions, will be caused by a new disease--new to humans, anyway. The bug that's responsible will be strange, unfamiliar, but it won't come from outer space. Odds are that the killer pathogen--most likely a virus--will spill over into humans from a nonhuman animal.
Spillover is a work of science reporting, history, and travel, tracking this subject around the world. For five years, I shadowed scientists into the field--a rooftop in Bangladesh, a forest in the Congo, a Chinese rat farm, a suburban woodland in Duchess County, New York-and through their high-biosecurity laboratories. I interviewed survivors and gathered stories of the dead. I found surprises in the latest research, alarm among public health officials, and deep concern in the eyes of researchers. I tried hard to deliver the science, the history, the mystery, and the human anguish as page-turning drama.
From what innocent creature, in what remote landscape, will the Next Big One emerge? A rodent in southern China? A monkey in West Africa? A bat in Malaysia that happens to roost above a pig farm, from which hogs are exported to Singapore? In this age of speedy travel between dense human populations, an emerging disease can go global in hours. But where and how will it start? Recent outbreaks offer some guidance, and so I traced the origins of Ebola, Marburg, SARS, avian influenza, Lyme disease, and other bizarre cases of spillover, including the grim, unexpected story of how AIDS began from a single Cameroonian chimpanzee.
The subject raises urgent questions. Are these events independent misfortunes, or linked? Are they merely happening to us, or are we somehow causing them? What can be done? But this book is intended to be more than a work of reportage. It's also the tale of a quest, through time and landscape, for a new understanding of how the world works.
Read David's OpEds:
Ebola and the New Isolationism, Time Inc., October 6, 2014
Ebola Virus: A Grim, African Reality, New York Times, April 9, 2014
Anticipating the Next Pandemic, New York Times, September 22, 2012
[Books by David Quammen]
by Charles Darwin
The Illustrated Edition
Edited with Burkhard Bilger