Famous Montana pandemic predictor: ‘Viruses follow Darwinian rules’

Eight years ago, science journalist David Quammen wrote about a new coronavirus that would spread around the world through a local market in China.

For Montana Public Radio he gave an interview in order to celebrate the re-release of his 2013 book called Spillover: animal infections and the next human pandemic. Here are a few excerpts of this excellent Montana Public Radio interview.

According to the writer, ‘Coronavirus is a result of “our relationship with the rest of the natural world, which is consumptive, and intrusive, and disruptive. Those things shake loose viruses from their natural hosts.’

So we should all stay home?

‘This is a coronavirus, but when the word coronavirus was first spoken about this cluster of cases in China, I and anybody else who’s paid attention to this, shivered with dread because coronaviruses were at the top of the watchlist.’

There is nothing better for a virus, you write, than jumping on a human. Why is that?

Viruses follow Darwinian rules: they keep adapting because they have the greatest chance of survival and reproduction. When they nest in humans, they have an inordinately large number on Earth. There are as many as 7.7 billion of us, so a completely new world of possibilities arises for a virus. In this sense, this new coronavirus is one of the most successful viruses on the planet.

You describe man yourself as an outbreak. Why?

‘Ecologists speak of an outbreak when the population of a certain species suddenly expands. For example, a certain species of moth can appear in a nature reserve almost unnoticed for years on end, before suddenly exploding in number. A female lays up to two hundred eggs, twice in the summer, and if there just happens to be the ideal weather conditions for them, just about all of them will survive. The leaves are being eaten away like never before. Local residents want to eradicate them quickly with poison. But the funny thing is, if you wait quietly, the next year, or the following year, you’ll see an equally sudden decline in the population and slowly disappear. Why? Because they carry a viral pest around them as soon as the species is so numerous and so tightly packed. That virus will kill them and the population will be cut back abruptly.’

‘If we look at humans, we see a species the size of which has more than quadrupled over the past hundred years – and more people are joining. We mainly live in densely populated cities and are closely linked via intercontinental flights. According to the definition of ecologists, you can therefore see man as an outbreak.’

Will a virus suddenly reduce the population in our country?

“I put that question to the experts. Their conclusion is that this is not completely impossible, but it is to be avoided. We humans can adapt, both through our genes and in our behavior. We are intelligent creatures and can protect ourselves. We have science and technology. “


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