By David Quammen
Review by YK (Biochemistry)
Not many non-fiction books can be described as “gripping” and “intense”, but I think that Spillover by David Quammen is one of them.
Talking about zoonotic viruses (viruses that can cross the species boundary from animals to humans), Quammen describes various examples of different viruses that have come about over the years in detail, whilst always hinting towards his final, dramatic prediction of the “Next Big One”, i.e. the next deadly pandemic to sweep the world, on the scale of the Spanish Flu.
Interestingly, the characteristics of a killer virus and what made other viruses unsuccessful in this “endeavour” are described, which may be a slightly chilling thought considering that CRISPR and synthetic biology techniques are able to direct genetic modifications in a very specific manner and can be done in a high school lab.
Two of my favourite chapters in the book covered two of the main epidemics of the last 40 years: the HIV epidemic which was theorised to originate from the “bushmeat theory” and a Cameroonian chimpanzee, and the SARS epidemic in Hong Kong (where I am from, which, therefore, touched me on a very personal level).
Whilst there were plenty of references to important phrases in molecular biology, including promoters and enhancer (in terms of DNA sequence), all of which an avid biochemistry undergraduate love or will get to know, what I really enjoyed about this book was what it demonstrated about the scientific process and how large the gaps in our knowledge can be, despite the scientific community having researched on this topic for a long, long time. It reflects science in terms of how it impacts the wider community around it – causing alarm among public health officials and deep concern in the eyes of researchers – but also, it allows us to reflect on some questions that drill down to the centrality of disease: are these separate epidemics linked and if so, are they happening to us as a coincidence or if this was all as a result of human negligence. Most importantly, what can be done about it; and should we be scared?
Spillover by David Quammen