Relevant excerpts from “Spillover”

In light of the current COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve been reading “Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic” by David Quammen, published in 2012 (!!).  It takes a look into various zoonotic viruses that make the jump from animal to human. There have been a number of passages that have just jumped out and resonated with me as I’ve been reading.

One further factor, possibly the most crucial, was inherent to the way SARS-CoV affects the human body: Symptoms tend to appear in a person before, rather than after, that person becomes highly infectious. The headache, the fever, and the chills—maybe even the cough—precede the major discharge of virus toward other people. […] That order of events allowed many SARS cases to be recognized, hospitalized, and placed in isolation before they hit their peak of infectivity.

And a few paragraphs later:

“That probably helped account for the scale of worldwide misery and death during the 1918–1919 influenza: high infectivity among cases before they experienced the most obvious and debilitating stages of illness. The bug traveled ahead of the sense of alarm. And that infamous global pandemic, remember, occurred in the era before globalization. Everything nowadays moves around the planet faster, including viruses. If SARS had conformed to the perverse pattern of presymptomatic infectivity, its 2003 emergence wouldn’t be a case history in good luck and effective outbreak response. It would be a much darker story. The much darker story remains to be told, probably not about this virus but about another.”

One section of the book that was especially chilling involved the monkeys that inhabited the sacred monkey temples on Bali. In 2014, Kerry and I took our honeymoon there and I had even posted about the crazy monkeys: “While cute looking, the monkeys here are ridiculously aggressive. It was a bit scary!

Anyway, the monkeys on the island are all apparently infected with herpes B, which kills nearly everyone.

The monkeys aren’t shy about accepting, even demanding, those handouts. They have lost their wild instincts about personal space. Enterprising local photographers run a brisk trade in photos of tourists posed with macaques. “And here’s me in Bali, with a monkey on my head. Cute little guy, just wanted that Snickers bar. But the cute little guys sometimes bite and scratch.”

Engel, Jones-Engel, and their colleagues gathered two interesting sets of data from this place. They surveyed the monkey population, by way of blood samples; and they surveyed the human workforce at Sangeh, by way of interviews and also blood samples. What they found says a lot about the scope of opportunity for virus spillover between Asian monkeys and people.

The team drew blood from thirty-eight macaques, of which twenty-eight were adults, the rest youngsters. They screened the blood serum for evidence of antibodies to herpes B, the same virus that killed William Brebner and most of the other people ever infected with it. The results of the lab work were chilling: Among adult long-tailed macaques at Sangeh, the prevalence of herpes B antibodies was 100 percent. Every mature animal had been infected.

But, there is good news!

The researchers merely estimated that there must be thousands of monkey-bitten tourists walking away from Sangeh each year—and Sangeh is just one such Balinese monkey temple among a handful. The odds of a human contracting herpes B under these circumstances seem vast.

But it hasn’t happened, so far as anyone knows.

I recommended the book to my dad and he asked if it had a happy ending. I shared this passage toward to end of the book with him.

“These scientists are on alert. They are our sentries. They watch the boundaries across which pathogens spill. And they are productively interconnected with one another. When the next novel virus makes its way from a chimpanzee, a bat, a mouse, a duck, or a macaque into a human, and maybe from that human into another human, and thereupon begins causing a small cluster of lethal illnesses, they will see it—we hope they will, anyway—and raise the alarm.

Whatever happens after that will depend on science, politics, social mores, public opinion, public will, and other forms of human behavior. It will depend on how we citizens respond.”

He replied simply, “so much for the happy ending.”

I ended up rating this book 5 stars on Goodreads. I probably wouldn’t have discovered it if not for the current global pandemic, but it is something I think I’d have enjoyed before everything changed. David Quammen looks at a number of zoonotic diseases (SARS, Lyme, and AIDS among them) and their fascinating histories.