In Breathless: The Scientific Race to Defeat a Deadly Virus (Simon & Schuster, Oct.), Quammen profiles the scientists who studied the SARS-CoV-2 virus and fought the Covid pandemic.
One of the book’s main questions is that of the origins of the virus that causes Covid-19. Did you know it would be so central from the beginning?
In a sense, I’ve been working on this book for 23 years, beginning in 1999 when I walked across the Congo Basin and another basin in Central Africa. At one point, we walked for 10 days through Ebola habitats—that’s what got me interested in emerging diseases, particularly viruses. This book began in March 2020. I was working on a different book, and Simon & Schuster asked me, “Would you be interested in shoving that book aside and doing a book on the pandemic?” I said yes, not because it was an opportunity but because it felt like a responsibility. Did I know from the beginning that the question of the origin was going to center most? No, but I knew that the question was very important. It makes for good narrative. The origin question with zoonotic viruses is always a detective story. Who doesn’t like reading detective stories?
Were there any upsides to having to do all your interviews online?
One of my key operating principles is typically to “go there.” If you’re interested in a virus in the Congo, go there. But this time I had to figure out: How can I research this book when I can’t go there? I decided I would ask 60 or 70 of the world’s smartest, most interesting virologists and public health people who deal with viruses to let me Zoom interview them. I asked for an hour and half from each. I told them, “I want to ask about your work, but also about your life as a person, as a teacher, as a scientist, as a family member during the pandemic.” I had the luxury of talking with more of them because I was spending less time riding airplanes, getting visas, and getting permission to walk into somebody’s office.
Do you think the response to the next pandemic will be more effective?
That’s a question I asked all of my sources, right at the end of the interviews. We’re learning a lot from this pandemic. Science is learning a lot. Public health is learning a lot. Political leaders are learning a lot about how expensive unprepared response is. But I still don’t think we’re on course to be as prepared as we need to be.
How can future public health authorities and world leaders negotiate the tension between the way science works and the fact that people often need solutions fast?
We need to help the public understand better that science is a human process like grandmaster chess, Major League Baseball, and ballet. We need communicators. We need educators. We need librarians to help people understand what science is, how it works, and how important it is, and the fact that scientific answers are highly reliable but always provisional.