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Breathless jacket450Click image to pre-order on Amazon.On October 4, 2022, Simon & Schuster will publish Breathless: The Scientific Race to Defeat a Deadly Virus, my seventeenth book. It tells a story of the virus that has caused the COVID-19 pandemic—its origin, its evolution, its fierce journey through the human population. That virus is known as SARS-CoV-2. But this book is about people, not just about a virus. My main human characters are scientists, around the world, who have studied the virus, in a breathless effort to understand where it has come from, where it is going, and how we might cope with it to minimize misery and death. The book is a narrative of science in action, not a diatribe. It attempts to illuminate, among other things, the reality that science is a human process—a set of methods and principles and goals, not a body of facts—that moves by provisional steps toward clearer understanding of the physical world, including viral ecology and evolution.

Simon & Schuster asked me, in spring of 2020, to write a book about this pandemic, partly because I had a running start. I’ve been following the subject of dangerous viruses for about twenty years. Ten years ago, my book Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic described the principles and the history of zoonotic diseases—that is, animal infections that get into humans—and channeled the wisdom of certain scientific experts, who predicted aspects of the pandemic they foresaw. That coming pandemic would be caused by a new virus, passed to humans from wildlife. More specifically, it would be caused by a single-stranded RNA virus, because those evolve quickly and have a record of spilling from nonhuman animals into people. Still more specifically, the new scourge might be an influenza virus, or a measles-related virus, or a coronavirus. It could very possibly emerge into humans from wildlife captured and sold live, for food, as done in the wet markets of China that I had seen while researching Spillover.

Because of those predictions, when COVID-19 began, many people asked me: How were you so prescient? I wasn’t prescient, I said. I just listened to the experts.

A dilemma that faced me in 2020, as I began thinking about how to do a book on COVID-19, was that—like most of the rest of the world—I couldn’t travel. I couldn’t go (again) to China and climb (again) through caves filled with bats alongside scientists looking for dangerous viruses. I couldn’t shadow scientists at other field sites, as I usually do, and describe the adventurous, arduous, risky aspects of their work. I couldn’t even visit them in their labs and offices. One of my usual operating principles, as I have written about the sciences of ecology, evolutionary biology, and infectious disease, has been: Go there. Go to the Chinese caves. Go to the Congo forest. Go to the rooftops of Bangladesh, above which giant fruit bats circle at night, carrying nasty pathogens such as Nipah virus. But in this case, I couldn’t go anywhere. So I hit upon an alternate approach.

Beginning in January 2021, I did extended Zoom interviews with ninety-five of the world’s most interesting scientists (and a few public health officials) involved in the study of, and response to, the coronavirus. They ranged from Tony Fauci and George Gao (head of the China CDC at the time) and Eddie Holmes (an eminent molecular evolutionary virologist, whom I knew from Spillover research) and Sharon Peacock (leader of the United Kingdom’s massive effort to sequence genomes of SARS-CoV-2) to brilliant but unknown graduate students, technicians, and young researchers in labs from Edinburgh to Melbourne to Houston. Those interviews took me most of six months, and then I wrote the book during the second half of 2021. I incorporated the latest developments in the virus itself and the science of its dynamics as best I could, up until the point, some months into 2022, when the revising and checking had to be finalized and the book went into production.

From the beginning, my working title was low-key, understated, but (I hoped) ominous, and drawn from the careful terminology that scientists applied to this nefarious bug when it was first detected in people: A Novel Virus. Once it was finished and delivered, the Simon & Schuster team asked me to come up with a different title, something more vivid and urgent. I brainstormed with my editor, the astute and vastly experienced Bob Bender, and with my wife, the astute and vastly imaginative Betsy. We considered and discarded a list of unsatisfactory possibilities. Then, one morning near the deadline, Betsy and I were sitting in my office, giving it one more try. Catching the Virus had been suggested, for its applicability to both the process of infection and the scientific quest to understand and contain SARS-CoV-2. I wasn’t happy with that. Betsy suggested a variant, referring to the societal as well as individual struggles after two years of pandemic: Catching Our Breath. No, I said. But maybe close. And then I thought, simply: Breathless. Everyone embraced it.

Yes, it’s a word that’s been a title before, including for the English release of a very famous French movie (À Bout de Souffle, in the original). But you can’t copyright a title. Some get reused in differing ways. Jean-Paul Belmondo can haunt me if he sees fit.

 

 

franzJosephLand2Quammen makes his way across a basaltic scree field in Franz Joseph Land in the Russian Arctic. Read his blog post about the 2013 Pristine Seas Expedition sponsored by National Geographic. Photograph by Andy Mann.

David Quammen is an author and journalist whose books include The Song of the Dodo (1996), The Reluctant Mr. Darwin (2006), and  Spillover (2014), a work on the science, history, and human impacts of emerging diseases (especially viral diseases), which was short-listed for eight national and international awards and won three.  His shorter books Ebola  (2014) and  The Chimp and the River(2015) were drawn from Spillover, each with a new introduction. His forthcoming book (August 2018) is The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life, which explores the drastic revisions in understanding of life’s history on Earth forced by recent discoveries from genome sequencing, and the story of a scientist named Carl Woese. In the past thirty years Quammen has also published a few hundred pieces of short nonfiction—feature articles, essays, columns—in magazines such as Harper’s, National Geographic, Outside, Esquire, The Atlantic, Powder, and Rolling Stone.  He writes occasional Op Eds for The New York Times and reviews for The New York Times Book Review.  Quammen has been honored with an Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and is a three-time recipient of the National Magazine Award.  He is a Contributing Writer for National Geographic, in whose service he travels often, usually to wild and remote places.  Home is Bozeman, Montana.

Throughout the rest of this website, he will not refer to himself in the third person.

 

 

 

NONFICTION

Yellowstone: A Journey Through
America's Wild Heart

The Chimp and the River

Ebola

Spillover

The Reluctant Mr. Darwin

Monster of God

The Song of the Dodo

ESSAYS

Natural Acts

The Boilerplate Rhino

Wild Thoughts from Wild Places

The Flight of the Iguana

FICTION

Blood Line

The Soul of Viktor Tronko

The Zolta Configuration

To Walk the Line

EDITED

On the Origin of Species

by Charles Darwin

The Illustrated Edition

The Best American Science

and Nature Writing 2000

Edited with Burkhard Bilger

theLatest2

  • LITTLE THINGS

    August 16, 2022

          Here's an interesting fact that you might want to swirl around in your head, along with a sip of the morning coffee: Scientists have now assembled and archived more than 12 million genome sequences of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

    Novel Coronavirus SARS CoV 2 50047466323
          Each of those sequences is derived from a sample of saliva or other material drawn from an individual patient. Each consists of almost thirty thousand genomic letters in the alphabet of DNA (as translated, for stability during lab work, from the less stable alphabet of the virus’s RNA genome). Together they constitute data points reflecting the evolutionary history of SARS-CoV-2, from its earliest form as detected in Wuhan to its latest variants. Scientists have assembled those data points into a family tree, depicting the divergence and evolution of viral lineages as branches and limbs and twigs. (Actually, there are multiple versions of the tree, differing slightly from one another based on differences in the subset of data used and in the interpretation of ambiguities.) From the details of that family tree and its ongoing growth, disease experts and public health officials draw insights helpful to understanding and containing the spread of the virus. That field of science is called genomic epidemiology.

          Last week I published an Op Ed in The New York Times on this subject:
     https://www.nytimes.com/2022/08/10/opinion/
    coronavirus-evolution-vaccines.html

          The Op Ed took about eight days of work, writing and revising, then editing and correcting, with help from a fine editor and a crackerjack fact-checker at the Times. It drew also on my two years of effort toward a new book, Breathless: The Scientific Race to Defeat a Deadly Virus, which will be published by Simon & Schuster on October 4. (See the main post, left of this column.) And that book itself drew on—in addition to 95 interviews with scientists and other experts around the world, during early 2021—my twenty years of intermittently following and writing about the subject of emerging viruses.

          I never foresaw, back in the days when I was a young man writing fiction, or during the decades I worked as a journalist and author focused on ecology, evolutionary biology, and conservation, that I would spend so much of my elder years as an explainer of viruses. But it didn’t seem illogical, once I realized that a) all science writing needs to be storytelling, and b) the stories of emerging viruses are all tales of ecology and evolutionary biology.

          Darwin would have understood. But Darwin never had the gruesome satisfaction of pondering viral evolution, its strange turns and its awesome speed, because viruses weren’t known to exist in his era. Too small to see, too weird to imagine. Edward O. Wilson (who died last Christmas and is much missed) did understand, even though he didn’t study viruses himself. Ed recognized that viruses account for a vast portion of what he cared about most, the biological diversity of planet Earth. And he wrote an influential essay titled “The Little Things that Run the World.” He never mistook size for importance.

          Anyway, that’s what I did with my summer “vacation”: literary virology. So as not to sound like a drudge, I’ll add that there has also been time for a vast amount of dog-walking, a bit of cycling, a bit of gardening, and hours of diverse reading (including biographies of Khrushchev, Buster Keaton, and James Angleton) in the backyard. Plus, a continuing gambol across the green and unforgiving fields of golf. I hope your summer has been verdant and rich also.

         Did I say golf? Oh, yeah, sorry. It’s one of the things you do when you’re 74 years old and on your second pair of knees. Golf is healthy because it’s forever humbling, I’ve found, and you walk a lot. It’s interesting because it’s so hard. I suppose that’s the only thing it has in common with molecular evolutionary virology.

     

     

     

  • SPRINGTIME IN THE ROCKIES

    Douglas, Wyoming

    April 23, 2022

         It seemed like a good idea at the time: I would drive to Cincinnati, for an unmissable event at my old high school, making it a leisurely road trip, taking along a bag of golf clubs, stopping to golf with my friend Whisperin' Jack (the famous medical researcher and bon vivant) in Aurora, Coloeado, then across Kansas etc. to Cincinnati, and see more of my oldest pals while I'm in town. Lunches at Skyline Chili. Departing on April 22. Should I take a warm coat? Aw, sure, just in case.

         And then the vagaries of Western springtime asserted themselves. Now I'm holed up at a Holiday Inn Express in Douglas, Wyoming, which was as far as I could get in the blzzard, after spending last night in Casper. Insterstate 25 became impassable. Semis in the ditch. Low visibility, temperates at 32-33 F., horizontal snow, gusts of the force and sweep that are familiar to people who know Wyoming. Still, I've never seen quite such a hilariously (but dangerously, for travelers) nasty April morning. Who knew it was even possible: wind-driven slush.

         So I won't make it to Aurora tonight, and I won't play golf tomorrow with Whisperin' Jack. Maybe I'll be there in time for dinner. But I'm not restless or frustrated, I'm lucky: warm and dry, in this very decent motel room, and I've got plenty to do: I'm still reading and correcting the page proofs of this new book on the coronavirus and the pandemic. Finally, we have a settled title. It will appear in October, from Simon & Schuster, as BREATHLESS: The Scientific Race to Defeat a Deadly Virus. My account, informed by extended Zoom interviews with 95 experts, including some of the world's most brilliant and respected evolutionary virologists, of the origins, evolution, and fierce journey of the virus technically known as SARS-CoV-2. Reviewing the page proofs with great care, tweaking a word here and a phrase there, trying hard to make it both accurate and graceful: this is what we do when we make a book. Breathless will be my 17th, and I very much hope that you give it a look and find it interesting. There are many, many angles and facts and personalities and considerations to this story that haven't yet been put together in one place.

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EBOLA: The Natural and Human History of a Deadly Virus

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SPILLOVER: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic

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THE CHIMP AND THE RIVER: How AIDS Emerged from an African Forest