“Spillover” by David Quammen

Regular readers don’t need to be told that I’m a bit obsessed with zoonotic disease. It’s what I study, and it’s a big part of what I teach. I run a Center devoted to the investigation of emerging diseases, and the vast majority of all emerging diseases are zoonotic. I have an ongoing series of posts collecting my writings on emerging diseases, and far too many papers in electronic or paper format in my office to count. Why the fascination? Zoonotic diseases have been responsible for many of mankind’s great plagues–the Black Death, the 1918 “Spanish” flu pandemic, or more recently, HIV/AIDS. So you can imagine my delight when I read about Spillover, a new book by David Quammen on zoonotic diseases.

I’ve previously highlighted some of Quammen’s work on this site. That link goes to a 2007 story he wrote for National Geographic on “infectious animals,” which really serves as a preview to “Spillover,” introducing some of the concepts and stories that Quammen elaborates on in the book.

“Spillover” is wide-ranging, tackling a number of different infectious agents, including viruses like Nipah, Hendra, and Ebola; bacteria including Coxiella burnetii and Chlamydia psittaci; and parasites such as Plasmodium knowlesi, a zoonotic cause of malaria. HIV is a big part of the story; Quammen devotes the last quarter or so of the book to tracing the discovery and transmission of HIV from primates to humans, and from 1900 to present-day. He even takes the time to explain the basic reproductive number–something that’s not always a page-turner, but Quammen manages to do it well and without being too tangential to the rest of the story; much more of a Kate-Winslet-in-Contagion than Ben-Stein-in-Ferris Bueller delivery.

Indeed, “Spillover” is somewhat unique in that it doesn’t read quite like your typical pop science book. It’s really part basic infectious disease, part history, part travelogue. Quammen has spent a number of years as a correspondent for National Geographic, and it shows. The book is filled with not only well-documented research findings and interviews with scientists, but also with Quammen’s own experience in the field, which gives the book a bit of an Indiana Jones quality. In one chapter, he details his adventure tagging along with a research team to capture bats in China, entering a cave that “felt a little like being swallowed through the multiple stomachs of a cow.” This was after an earlier dinner in which he describes his encounters with the an appetizer of the “world’s stinkiest fruit” (I’ll keep the description of the smell to myself) with congealed pig’s blood for a main dish (bringing to mind the scooping out of monkey’s brains in “Temple of Doom”–and the various zoonotic diseases that could be associated with those, come to think of it).

Quammen’s book is an excellent, and entertaining, overview of the issues of zoonotic disease–why do they emerge? Where have they come from? How do they spread? The only thing that’s missing is more of a cohesive discussion about what to do about them. However, that’s rather understandable, as we certainly have less of a grasp of this question than we do about the others (and even with some of those, our knowledge is spotty at best). I hope “Spillover” will inspire another generation of future germ-chasers, as “The Coming Plague” did almost 20 years ago.

7 Replies to ““Spillover” by David Quammen”

  1. thanks for the recommendation! I’m studying biology (host-parasite-interaction mastersprogram) and as I spend a lot of time on the bus every day, I’m always happy about new reading material.

  2. I am about half way through the book right now and it is tough to put down. Quammen is a friend and I am really enjoying reading this after having heard about some of his trips to do the research.

  3. The theory that HIV originated in African primates was instigated by an incident of laboratory contamination. Briefly, blood samples of “wild-caught African green monkeys” (AGM) were brought over from Africa to a laboratory at the Harvard School of Public Health. In this laboratory, these AGM samples were contaminated by a virus from Southborough, Massachusetts (from the New England Regional Primate Research Center; NERPRC).

    When the contaminating virus was “discovered” in the AGM blood samples, this “AIDS-like virus” (now know as AGMmac-251) was thought to have come from Africa; and thus, the theory that HIV originated in African primates was spawned.

    This entire story was revealed in the February 18th, 1988 issue of NATURE (3 years after the “discovery” of an “AIDS-like virus” in AGM). An editorial described the story, the comparison of restriction endonuclease map between SIVagm and SIVmac-251 were compared and found 99% identical, i.e., same virus. Finally, the parties involved in the contamination incident (Essex and Kanki) wrote a letter to Nature admitting the incident of contamination.

    Nevertheless, 6 months latter, in the October 1988 issue of SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, Essex and Kanki co-authored an article entitled “The origins of the AIDS virus,” which contained a color, full-page photo of the African green monkey. Google “The Fallacy of HIV’s African Origin” to see my more detailed article on these events.


    . . . An editorial described the story I just summarized and the comparison of restriction endonuclease maps of SIVagm and SIVmac-251 was published (results — 99% identical, i.e., same virus). . . .

  5. Hi – thanks for the recommendation too. Re. the big question in your last par about what to do about these emerging zoonoses, you may be interested in following the work of a large international research consortium I am working with which is taking an integrated approach to understanding zoonoses, and aims to identify evidence-based opportunities for policy and interventions which will reduce zoonoses emergence, balancing disease regulation and sustainable ecosystem management. See http://www.driversofdisease.org

  6. I read with interest Spillover. I have two comments. The death of rhesus monkeys at the Reston site was probably not caused by Ebola virus but rather by Simian Hemorrhagic Fever Virus (SHFV), which is latent in several genera of African monkeys but causes devastating disease in Asian rhesus monkeys generally when transmitted accidentally in primate colonies (see my Note in NATURE 377:98,1995). We got a small sample of fluid from Peter Jahrling of Hot Zone Fame and sequenced part of the SHFV genome but could not complete it because of lack of material. Another interesting spillover is from a mouse virus (LDV) to a new virus, porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus which appeared around 1980 in Germany and the US Middle West, has spread worldwide and is now the most serious disease of swine (see Plagemann, Emerging Infectious diseases 9:903,2003)

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