Steve's Herpetological Blog

An insight into the life of Steve, his research and the many books he reads


#StevesLibrary: Spillover

Right at the beginning of the pandemic, I tried to purchase a book that was recommended to me back in 2014 whilst still an undergraduate. My friend who had read the book, was studying microbiology and knew that I was studying zoology. Therefore it made perfect sense to inform me of it given it’s topic of zoonoses, unfortunately it seems most of the populous also had the same idea as they were sold out everywhere I looked. Roll the tape forward to November (just before the 2nd national lockdown) and I saw a copy of that fabled book Spillover in Waterstones and my partner bought me a copy, mainly due to how excited I was to see one in person (imagine a kid in a sweet shop). It’s the first book that I’ve read in 2021 and despite the fact it’s over 500 pages long, it didn’t take nearly as long as I’d expected.

I’ve been a fan of David Quammen’s writing for a long time now, he’s the sort of guy that I can imagine having a great time down the pub with (if they ever reopen). His writing style is highly accessible and full of ever relevant fact that you’d hope to expect from a best-selling author. In terms of Spillover, I personally think it is one of those books that everyone should read especially in the light of the COVID-19 pandemic. It does a great job of investigating the emergence of a number of zoonotic diseases (those that jump from animals to humans) such as Hendra virus, Ebola and HIV. Whilst these are diseases that make strike fear into many, each one has it’s own origin story involving a number of scientists trying to figure out how each disease works in order to save lives.

I’m annoyed with myself that I didn’t get around to reading Spillover sooner and if you haven’t read it, you must. I’m not saying that Quammen predicted the SARS-Cov-2/COVID-19 emergence but there is evidence to suggest that the Next Big One (the name given to hypothetic pandemics) was going to be a coronavirus. As a zoologist studying infectious diseases in amphibians and reptiles, Spillover is fascinating for another reason. It’s crazy to think how differently the impacts of my research could be if those diseases also had the potential to jump to humans. Snakes and frogs are a tad too far evolutionary removed from human beings so I think I’m safe, however those studying bats and gorillas for example keep on pushing despite the insurmountable odds. This includes public backlash against species that act as hosts or reservoirs of pathogens that eventually make their way into people.

With the world a very changed place following the emergence of COVID-19, I believe that Spillover is the book that will help people find answers to the questions they’ve been searching for. Life may take a long time to return to normal but by studying and understanding zoonotic pandemics from the past, we can try to infer how things may play out. By following the scientific guidance available to us, we can only help accelerate this transition back to a normal way of life but it requires everyone to take action. When the first viral pandemics struck humanity, we had no way of detecting them. Now in the 21st Century, we can create vaccines in under a year and trace the origins using molecular sequencing. The odds may seem against us but we will overcome this.

The most important point Quammen makes is going to be the one I leave you with. The reason we’re seeing so many new diseases emerge from wildlife is due to our persistent onslaught of the natural world. As species get rarer and rarer, as we push deeper and deeper into habitats – where do the diseases go? They don’t have any conscious thought and natural selection acts blindly in order to help maximise survival. If a virus or a bacterium is to continue to fulfil it’s purpose and continue passing it’s genes onto untold generations, why wouldn’t they jump into a species like our own with almost 8 billion members and a global network? As I’ve said, COVID, AIDS and Ebola haven’t made these decisions consciously but evolution has given them the tools to help invade our bodies and become the winners in our greed and unbridled destruction of the natural world. To jump to humans and become a zoonoses is to survive, whilst we are pushing their natural hosts closer to extinction. To prevent future pandemics, we need to conserve habitats and species.

If you liked this post and enjoy reading this blog, please consider supporting me on Patreon where you will also gain access to exclusive content. If you’d like to buy a book from my Amazon Wish List, please follow this link.



Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *