SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
2021 is just a few days away, and there's some hope for the New Year thanks to the rollout of two coronavirus vaccines in the U.S. It happens just as we reach yet another awful milestone - more than 330,000 people who've died from COVID-19. Back in March, when all those deaths seemed unimaginable, we talked with science writer David Quammen. At that time, he said he was surprised at how unprepared the world was for a pandemic. After all, for many years, he'd been warning about a global outbreak originating in a wild animal market somewhere in the world. As we look to the new year, we decided to check back with him to see if we've learned some lessons that could help prevent another widespread infection. David Quammen joins us from his home in Bozeman, Mont. Welcome to the program.
DAVID QUAMMEN: Thank you, Sarah. Good to be with you.
MCCAMMON: Your 2012 book was called "Spillover: Animal Infections And The Next Human Pandemic." And again, that was 2012. So I almost hate to ask you this, seeing as we haven't even made it through this pandemic yet. But is another one inevitable?
QUAMMEN: Well, another spillover is inevitable, and another pandemic is highly possible unless we do what's necessary to prevent spillovers from becoming outbreaks, outbreaks from becoming epidemics, epidemics from becoming pandemics - and those are just stages in scale. Those things are going to happen. We need to be vigilant so that we're on those when they do happen. We can surround them. We can respond to them and prevent the next outbreak from turning into an epidemic or a pandemic.
MCCAMMON: And as you've said, we were not as prepared for this coronavirus pandemic as we should have been. What have we learned this time around that might help us contain the next virus?
QUAMMEN: We've learned that fast, accurate diagnostic testing is really important - for instance, the capacity to test people at airports. In the time that it takes for a person to go through airport security, we should have been able to test them to find out whether they were positive or negative for this virus. Ten years ago, I was told that that technology was coming, but I was surprised to find that it wasn't here. We have the science. We have the public health capacity. We have the tools. What we need is the political will to apply those tools to create international cooperative agreements and response networks. And we need community buy-in to a much greater degree than we have had, certainly in the U.S. and a number of other countries in this case.
MCCAMMON: So that's the quick response, but what can we do in the longer term to try to prevent or at least reduce the severity of these kinds of outbreaks?
QUAMMEN: Well, these things are not unconnected. They're part of a pattern. The emergence of new viruses from wild animals results from human interaction with wild animals through disrupting highly diverse ecosystems. So all of the things that we do that draw resources from the rest of the natural world - mining and logging and the extraction of fossil fuels, everything that we do as 8 billion humans consuming resources - that is essentially squashing viruses out of wild animals into the human population.
MCCAMMON: Once the vaccine is widespread, does this virus go away? Will we ever get rid of it?
QUAMMEN: This virus is not going to go away, no. I think it's safe to say that the virologists - the molecular evolutionists that I trust are saying that this thing is going to be with us forever. It may evolve toward lesser virulence, but I think 30 years from now, children will still be vaccinated against COVID-19. We're still vaccinated against measles. We've had a vaccine against measles for - what? - 70 years, and measles is still killing tens of thousands of people around the world each year in pockets where people haven't been vaccinated. Measles hasn't gone away. I don't see any reason why the COVID-19 virus is likely to disappear from the human population, either.
MCCAMMON: Back to the issue of response, why do you think we did such a poor job this time around? And do you see those problems as fixable?
QUAMMEN: I think the problems are fixable with better national leadership. And part of the problem is that national leaders don't want to spend a lot of money on preparedness against something that might not happen between now and the next election. The fact that it might cost tens of billions of dollars to create networks of preparedness against a pandemic sounds like a lot if the pandemic hasn't occurred on your watch. But we know now that tens of billions of dollars is chicken feed compared to what what an actual global pandemic costs economies.
MCCAMMON: So can you tell us when we're going to get back to normal? Is that going to happen?
QUAMMEN: When did we get back to normal after 9/11? Well, in some ways, we never got back to the normal that we had. You know, you used to be able to get on an airplane carrying a pocket knife. You can't do that anymore. You can still get on an airplane carrying a virus - a dangerous virus. I think you'll be less likely to do that in the future and that there will be a lot of changes in terms of public health surveillance. I think there will be a new consciousness. We haven't forgotten about 9/11, and we're certainly not going to forget about this. I mean, you know, the bad news is also the good news. This is an unforgettable experience, and I think we will learn some very important, valuable, necessary lessons from it.
MCCAMMON: It seems like an unforgettable experience, a profound event, but is there a danger that three or four or five years go by, and we start to forget just how bad this was - that we start to let our guard down?
QUAMMEN: There is that danger. There's always that danger. But the precautions that we put into place, assuming that we do after this event, will be either reinforced by success or reinforced, if we don't do them, by another failure - by another pandemic. There will be more of these viruses knocking on our door. And if we don't do what's necessary, then we'll get a booster of concern about pandemics. And my hope is that we won't need that - that we'll only need one shot of alert about the dangers of pandemics, and that'll be COVID-19.
MCCAMMON: Writer David Quammen, thank you for speaking with us.
QUAMMEN: Good to talk with you, Sarah. Have a good, healthy next year.
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