«We humans need to remember that we are part of the natural world. We're not separate from it. We're not above it. We are one species. We are a primate, we are a mammal. It is time to be aware that our choices as a society and as individuals are the footprints we leave in the world». David Quammen is the author of "Spillover", a book that has sold millions of copies all over the world in which the American journalist and science writer explains the evolution of viruses and describes in unsuspecting times the arrival of a pandemic like the one we are experiencing. David Quammen is the first guest of MeetKodami, a series of video meetings in which the protagonists are people who, through their testimony and experience, embody the essence of our Kodami Manifesto.

In 2012 "Spillover" was published. In 2020, the Covid-19 epidemic spreads around the world. "The next pandemic could start from a wet market in southern China, a place where wild animals are for sale and slaughtered while alive … and the virus could be spread by a bat" is written in your book. But I think it's time to say clearly that yours was not a "prophecy" but a consideration due to a terrific scientific work

Well, that's certainly what “Spillover” is about. It's about our relationship with other animals and with viruses that other animals carry and the inevitability that there would be spillovers, some of which would, would bring the threat of a pandemic. The spillover is the moment when a virus or some other sort of a disease causing pathogen passes from its non-human hosts into its first human victim. That's the moment of spillover. And the background to that is that most of our infectious diseases come from wild animals. Everything has to come from somewhere. So when you hear a new Corona virus, a novel Corona virus in humans, why is it new? Well, it's new because it's never been seen in humans before. Where did it come from? Has to come from somewhere. It comes from another creature, it comes from a wild animal.

How did your journey of discovery begin? Why did you decide to deal with zoonoses?

I have always been interested in the natural world and animals. As a professional writer, I have written a lot about Charles Darwin’s work in ecology and evolutionary biology. I wrote about large animals and wild ecosystems for National Geographic or in my earlier books. But about 25 years ago, I got very interested in Ebola virus: this dramatic, horrible virus from central Africa that causes terrible disease. I’ve been there on an assignment for National Geographic and I started reading about Ebola. And I learned that Ebola, like other viruses that occasionally infect humans, has to have a non-human host, a reservoir host where it lives over long periods of time. That reservoir host is still a mystery where Ebola hit when it wasn't infecting humans. Then I realized that this was all about ecology and evolutionary biology of scary viruses. And at that point, I got interested in this larger subject. I had been traveling a lot again for earlier books, such as “The song of the Dodo”. I spent eight years around the world studying about evolution and extinction. So I traveled through Indonesia, Tasmania, India and various parts of the Planet when it came to the subject of zoonotic diseases, these diseases that pass from non-human animals into humans. I’ve been in contact with the scientists who do the detective work on the field. So I went out with those scientists, these courageous, brilliant men and women who study emerging diseases. And I followed them around as they did their work.

«People, gorillas, horses, pigs, monkeys, chimpanzees, bats and viruses: we are all part of the same thing». Through these words of yours, can you help us explain the concept of "One Health"?

By remembering that humans are animals and that diseases that are carried by other animals can be shared with humans. So a virus like the COVID-19 is a kind of virus that infects wild animals and also infects humans. One virus and one infection on the other side: that is “One Health”. So, humans to be healthy need animals to be healthy. We need for ourselves animals to be healthy. We need a certain balance rather than a disruptive relationship between humans and the rest of the natural world in order, not just to protect biological diversity, not just to protect the welfare of animals, but to protect our own health as well. That's “One health”.

In “Spillover” you wrote this sentence: «The most serious outbreak on the planet earth is that of the species Homo sapiens». How can we learn to respect the other living beings?

St. Francis taught us centuries ago to respect our brothers and sisters of the natural world. And now we have a new Francis and he is helping to remind us that this is important and many others are reminding us that it's important to live in some harmony with the natural world. But yes, we humans are an outbreak in the ecological sense. There are 8 billion of us on the Planet now and it's like an outbreak of some sort of an insect pest eating the leaves off of all the trees in a forest. And that's how disease scientists talk about an outbreak when there's a cluster of cases. Ecologists, at the same time, talk about an outbreak when a single population, a single species explodes in numbers and overwhelms its ecosystem and throws its ecosystem out of balance. So we are an outbreak in that sense.

How can we learn to respect other living beings? Do we still have time to do it?

Absolutely yes. We humans need to remember that we are part of the natural world. We're not separate from it. We're not above it. We are one species. We are a primate, we are a mammal. We share a lot of things with other mammals and we have to be aware that all of the choices that we make as societies and as individuals have an impact: they represent our collective footprint on a natural world. What we eat, the minerals that we take from wild ecosystems, the fossil fuels that we extract the timber, the trees that we cut down: all of these choices, including how much we travel and even how many children we have. We need to have a less damaging, less destructive impact on the natural world. So how do we do that? Well, we need to control the growth of our population and the growth of our consumption. We are 8 billions and many billions of us are not consuming much at all because we live in poverty and a relatively small fraction of us are consuming a lot because we live in affluence. It's possible for all humans to live comfortably and we need less disparity. These are implicitly  political ideas. I realized that I'm not a politician but it's social too: so we all need to think about those things, avoiding excessive consumption. I traveled a lot, for instance: my impact comes there. Human consumption is the thing: we waste food, we waste energy, we waste resources. We need to be more conscientious and vigilant.

How is your life in Montana during this time? How are people reacting to this pandemic there in the States? 

People are suffering in the United States as in Italy. I know how badly Italy has been hit in March and April and hit badly again now. In Montana was not that bad the first time but it was in November. And now we're getting it under control, but all across the US as other countries I know how people are suffering. Children have been unable to go to school in a lot of cases for long stretches of time. People have been unable to go to their jobs. People need to work in order to buy food for their families. I have been relatively lucky because I'm a writer. I always work from home, except when I'm traveling and I need to do it and now I can't. That's the only hardship really that I've faced: my wife and I are isolated in our house. Her family live in the same town but we very seldom see them. We see them by Skype. So it's difficult for everybody. We have to get through this and now we have, we have vaccines.

Is the vaccine a step towards making things better?

We need the vaccines to be distributed fairly and produced in great quantity as quickly as possible. We need people to be willing to take the vaccines and not to be suspicious of the vaccines. We need a broader sense and people to trust science. We need good political leaders who tell the truth not like the ones that have been running my country for the last four years. I don't want to get too political but these things are obvious. So it's difficult but we can get through it. And to do that we need to think not just about our own health and the health of our families but the health of our communities and the health of other people around the world.

In your latest book, "The Tangled Tree", the focus is on the involvement of viruses in biological evolution, focusing on what is known today about DNA and genomes. And starting from Darwin's intuitions that you mentioned earlier…

Darwin was essentially the first person to draw an evolutionary tree of life. The image of the tree of life goes back to the Bible. It had a religious significance but then Darwin gave it a new significance and it was evolutionary. This is the shape of history on Earth: the history of living things and it's shaped like a tree beginning with a common ancestry and then rising up through time in the vertical dimension with few great limbs and then many branches, many twigs and the leaves. But in the late 20th Century a scientist named Carl Woese and the people who followed after him used a new method to make new discoveries that show that the tree of life is actually not shaped like a tree. The history of life is more complicated than that. And that's why the title of my book is it. It's more intricate than that because we now know that there have been genes moving sideways from one limb to another, from one branch to another flowing sideways, tangling the tree, flowing into another lamb or another branch carrying gene sideways. This is a phenomenon called “horizontal gene transfer”: from ancestors to descendants from parents to offspring, horizontal gene transfers its genes moving sideways. How does that happen? The short answer is it happens by infection: viruses and bacteria have moved sideways by infection, and they have carried genes into our genome, even into the human genome.

Could explaining such an intricate tree help the reader remember that science and life aren't that far apart?

Well, I write about people. I tell the stories of the people and I believe that when people read about science they want to read about themselves. They want to read about the women and men who made the discoveries. So I tell stories of the human side of science and the people who make these discoveries.

You recently stated: «As we fight Covid-19 we should start worrying about the next one»

It's important to remember that this COVID-19 disaster is not simply something that happened to us: it's part of a pattern. And that pattern reflects things that we humans have been doing, disrupting the natural world, coming in contact with wild animals that carry viruses, giving those viruses the opportunity to become our viruses, to spill over into us. This is not going to end with the COVID-19 vaccine. This is not going to end when we get past this pandemic because we're still doing those things. We're still going into wild forces, wild forests, rich ecosystems, and cutting down trees and digging up minerals. We're still doing that. So there will be more spillovers and those spillovers will lead to more outbreaks: a cluster of a dozen or two dozen cases in a remote village in Africa or a small town in the Southwestern United States or in Italy or in China. Those things will still happen but we need to take the measures to protect those outbreaks from becoming epidemics and pandemics, because there will be more pandemic threats. This is not the end of it. There will be another next big one or at least the threat of a next big one. But if we are better prepared next time – in two years or five, six years – then it's possible that we can prevent the next dangerous threat from becoming a big pandemic. We have the tools, we have the power, we have the knowledge. What we need is the political will and the dedication to do that. We have to think to face it. Let's hope that this message comes to everybody: together we can spread the voice. So people listen to Kodami: pay attention, tune in!

  • Italian version:

David Quammen: «Noi umani, animali tra tanti altri: con la pandemia è tempo di esserne coscienti»