Pipistrello (LaPresse)

There are Other Viruses Out There

David Quammen predicted everything. In his book the Spillover, published in Italy by Adelphi, the American writer analyzed the possibility that a new virus could turn the world upside down. Quammen called this event “the Next Big One.”

After the appearance of COVID-19 many dashed to the bookshops, for no other reason than the fact that Quammen had described the way in which the pandemic would arise, identifying a wet-market as the place from where the contagion would spread. COVID-19, however, is already a reality. What can we expect from the future? We discussed this and other matters with the American science journalist who took part in an interview with InsideOver.

IO: In the Spillover you predicted the “Next Big One”. How did you do it?

DQ: I cannot predict the future but ten years ago whilst I was doing research about the spillover, I listened to a group of scientists who were studying the subject in a meticulous manner. Scientists went to the fields to study animal viruses. The aim was to understand if and how man would be infected. I asked the scientists if there would be a “Next Big One,” and they said yes. So I asked what it would look like. The scientists answered that I could write what I wrote in my book: namely yes, there would be a pandemic and that the pandemic would be caused by a virus.

IO: Did you ask any other questions?

DQ: Then I wondered where this virus would come from. It will come from an animal, I said to myself. But what kind? From a wild animal and, in all likelihood, from a bat. And again: what kind of virus will it be? A type capable of developing at great speed. The same type that manages to adapt to new hosts to provoke a coronavirus syndrome. But there was still another question to ask: where could the first spillover take place? There are parts of the world where people come into contact with wild animals. Here, too, an example was worth mentioning: a wet-market, a place where wild animals are on sale and alive. In short, a place where wild animals are close to domesticated ones and where wild animals are close to other foods. There was one last question: where could something like this happen? In China, for example. That is what I heard and wrote in my book.

IO: Having seen that a substantial number of spillovers originate in bats must man fear these animals? Ebola, Sars and COVID-19 originated in bats.

DQ: Bats are the carriers of a large number of dangerous viruses. We call them “host animals”, i.e. animals in which the virus lives for a long period of time without the animals getting sick. The virus remains invisible for a long period of time in host animals. So no, humanity shouldn’t be afraid of bats. The bats do not disturb us, we disturb them. If we had left them alone the virus would have stayed inside them. When we enter forests and caves and catch and kill bats, we expose ourselves to viruses. Bats are wonderful creatures. They have great value for the ecosystem, they belong to the natural world and all we have to do is leave them alone.

IO: Many argue that the new coronavirus has its origins in the exotic animals market in Wuhan. What do you think are the origins of COVID-19?

DQ: The question is interesting. Everyone began to convince themselves that the pandemic originated in the Wuhan fish market. But in that market other things are sold besides fish: in that market, wild and domesticated animals are sold. This, at least, is what happened in the Wuhan market until last December. The reason why people identified the Wuhan market as the starting point of the outbreak is simple: in January, a scientific article was published that covered the first forty-one cases of COVID-19. Since many of those cases had originated precisely in the Wuhan fish market, people thought of that market as the place where the pandemic broke out. A guy, reviewing that article, realized that many cases came from Wuhan, but not all.

IO: So?

DQ: So the question arose: where have other people been infected? We are talking about 14 cases, among the original ones, which can be placed in December but had no contact with the Wuhan fish market. The first case of COVID-19 should be included among these cases, i.e. those that did not have any contact with the Wuhan market. How would that person have got sick? That person would have got sick in November, somewhere, maybe in the city of Wuhan, but not in the market. This piece of evidence suggests that the virus had already been circulating in Wuhan before then. The virus originated from the bat, but the contact between the bat and humans took place elsewhere and not in the market. In all likelihood someone caught a bat in the countryside and took it to the city. Let’s make a hypothesis: it is possible that this person, perhaps a hunter, went to a cave and captured a bat. At this point, the one we will call “hunter” may have brought the bat into the house, after having caged it. And this could have happened before the bat was transported to the market. On December 1 the hunter’s wife may have fallen ill. The woman may never have approached the market and, despite this, she was still the first case. But the story could be much more complicated than that.

IO: Richard Ebright, a researcher and microbiologist, wrote in the Washington Post that the first infection could have occurred completely by accident. Perhaps because the safety measures were not optimal? There is debate about the origins of COVID-19. According to one “conspiracy theory” the virus may have been generated in a laboratory in Wuhan. What do you think?

DQ: Well, he should publish a scientific article with data and evidence. I have not read any such article. I did however read a very in-depth article in Nature. An article that was published by five of the best viral evolution scholars. These five experts examined the genome of this virus and analyzed precisely that possibility (COVID-19’s origins in a laboratory, editor’s note), concluding that it is not possible. We are now sure that it comes from a bat. A particular bat that resides in central China. For the simple fact that the genome matches. The claims that the virus originated from a pangolin and those that the virus came out of the laboratory are not corroborated by the data. And I care about the data.

IO: Should we expect other pandemics?

DQ: We can expect more spillovers. As long as humanity is so numerous on this planet, as long as mankind is so hungry for products of the natural world, for both meat as well as the various forms of energy, and as long as these circumstances persist, there will always be spillovers from viruses to humans. Spillover can lead to contagion. We should be able to stop this phenomenon. If we did what we can it would be possible to prevent the next infection from turning into an epidemic within a small town or into a global pandemic. Other spillovers are inevitable. And this is due to the fact that there are almost 8 billion people in the world.

IO: What do you think of the mortality rate of COVID-19 in Italy and Lombardy in particular?

DQ: I don’t know, it’s terrible. Something tragic is happening in Italy. I think the only explanation is this: the Lombard health system has been overloaded with cases. In this way, it was not possible to give treatment to all the people who needed it. So more people have died than necessary.

IO: Do you believe there are other viruses that we should be afraid of?

DQ: Yes. COVID-19 had already been known for five years. The scientists who found it in bats were certain that a preparation against the virus would have to capable of fighting a pandemic. Chinese scientists said so three years ago. So it is really possible to dive into the wild. Just as it is possible to conduct research into animals. Research that can be very dangerous. Scientists are at work and are discovering that this is not the only virus around. There are other viruses that could be dangerous. We need to support research. In contrast to what happened in the circumstances surrounding COVID-19, our leaders need to take action based on the information they have. So yes, there are other viruses out there. We need to know where they are, what their genomes are, and we also need to know how we should behave when faced with a possible spillover.

IO: You know many medical experts in the sector. Has anyone been able to tell you when we will get out of this situation?

DQ: Nobody has been able to really tell us when all this will end. This is a very difficult forecast. Predicting what the virus will do is not easy, just as it is really complex to predict what human behavior will be. Likewise, political behavior cannot be predicted. So it is possible that COVID-19 could travel around the world and infect a large portion of the human population, killing with a mortality rate of 2% or 3% or, in some cases, it could be worse, as is happening in Italy. COVID-19 could persist for months on end. There is the possibility of a vaccine, which will probably be available to us in nine months to a year. The vaccine will help us for sure. However, can I say that the pandemic will end in the next two months? In the next four months? No, I cannot. Maybe. And I hope so for the sake of Italy. It is very sad what is happening to you.