Listening To The Viral Chatter

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David Quammen’s latest essay in the New York Times is a moving supplication to humanity, an appeal sparked by our global tragic experience with Covid-19, and an exhortation to listen to the “chatter” of viruses percolating throughout the planet — an exhortation that one would think is not necessary in a post-Covid world. But it is.

Quammen is perhaps the world’s most eloquent commentator on disease ecology, the branch of biology that deals with the sharing of parasites and pathogens among all of Earth’s living forms. His work has appeared in Time, The New Yorker, Harper’s, and elsewhere. His National Geographic essay “How Viruses Shape Our World” is assigned reading in one of my college classes.

One of his earliest works, The Song of the Dodo, is an inquisitive and subtle history of an ecological theory known as island biogeography. This book was awarded the John Burroughs Medal and the New York Public Library/Helen Bernstein Award. It is one of my favorite books in the entire history of science.

Quammen’s possibly most intensive investigation, however, is documented in his magisterial book Spillover. It is there that Quammen began his deep study of zoonotic diseases and the scientists who study them. It is from there that Mr. Quammen’s authority on the emerging pathogens that continue to threaten modern society derives.

So, when David Quammen has something to say about zoonotic diseases it is sensible to listen.

His latest essay begins with the observation that just this year, two marine mammals a bottlenose dolphin in Florida and a porpoise in Sweden were found dead and suffering from infection with a highly pathogenic avian influenza virus. That’s right. It turns out that cetaceans and can be infected with diseases that originate in birds.

These are only some of the latest examples where we have learned of parasite spillover between animal species. Indeed, we have long known that some parasites (like the parasitic Rat Lungworm that causes lung infections in many mammals) are generalists, while others are specialists. What confers the potential for cross-species transmission is undoubtedly complex, and a question of great significance to scientists currently studying disease ecology.

Quammen calls such observations of spillover from one species to another “viral chatter”, an idea he attributes to American epidemiologist Don Burke.

In his essay, Quammen writes,

Typically these one-off infections come to a dead end, which is good. But the “occasionally” part means that it’s a repeating pattern, which is bad — or at least ominous. What this pattern signals to the wary, such as Dr. Burke, is that a certain virus “wants” to spill across that gap between animal hosts and humans, and spread itself widely.

Quammen’s concern is that we aren’t listening to the chatter, at least not closely enough.

I agree.

Perhaps we are not listening because the chatter is drowned out by the noise of election politics, the war in Ukraine, and economic inflation. To be sure, there are some of us who are listening. Networks of diagnostic laboratories like the World Health Organization’s Global Influenza Surveillance and Response System and the United States’ National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System do their best to listen to the chatter. But we currently lack the widespread, sufficiently resourced infrastructure for infectious disease intelligence to truly monitor the sharing of parasites and pathogens between animal species, and between non-human animals and ourselves. Listening to the viral chatter is going to require a more sensitive microphone.

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