Book Review: “Breathless,” by David Quammen

Quammen follows the story of Covid from scientists’ first awareness of the outbreak in Wuhan through reports of Omicron in late 2021. Alongside the human story, spillover between humans and other animals is a persistent theme. Early in 2020, a dog in Hong Kong tested positive. There were positive cats in Minnesota, two positive hippos in Antwerp, a positive tiger in Knoxville. An outbreak spread through mink farms in the Netherlands. Last year, of the many white-tailed deer sampled in Pennsylvania, 44 percent tested positive. The persistent danger of spillover between species informs arguments over the virtues and the flaws of both approaches to pandemics: “prediction and prevention versus surveillance and response.”

“Breathless” is so good that I was slow to realize that it lacks the vivid you-are-there details of “Spillover.” That’s because he wasn’t there. In “Breathless,” there are no scenes of an intrepid author helping trap macaques at a Sufi shrine or examining a white-footed mouse for Lyme-infested larval ticks. Among its other virtues, “Spillover” was something of a nightmare travel book, but “Breathless” is a different species of tour de force. Quammen’s research methods have mutated. “I avoided airports for more than two years after Covid-19 exploded,” he says up front, “and I got through the year 2020 on one tank of gas.” Yet these barriers didn’t prevent him from writing a luminous, passionate account of the defining crisis of our time — and the unprecedented international response to it. While many people were begging for mercy from the motley of gods that they also credit with designing this Eden for viruses, epidemiologists and vaccine scientists all over the world raced to save the lives of people they would never meet.

Citing Faulkner’s multiple narrators, Quammen says, “The discernment of truth — let’s make that ‘truth,’ because it’s such an imperious and suspect word — comes from listening to many voices.” He read a library’s worth of books and Zoomed with some 95 sources — epidemiologists, geneticists and public health officials who were closely involved in research and decision-making. He smoothly weaves not only their facts, but their way of speaking, into his story. “Spoken words are data, in nonfiction,” he says, “and I share scientists’ respect for the sanctity of data.” He provides a mini-biography of each interviewee. Backstage outtakes humanize the participants, as when Quammen asks Anthony Fauci whether Brad Pitt or Kate McKinnon did a better job of satirizing him. These glimpses undergird his assertion that science is “a rational process leading toward ever-clearer understanding of the material world, but it’s also an activity performed by humans.”

Quammen marries an old-fashioned love of colorful language to his passion for detail — an odd coupling that results not just in a lucid book about an important topic, but also in a book that’s a pleasure to read. “What nature of bug seethed in this dollop of liquid human distress?” he asks of a private genome-sequencing company in Guangzhou. Sometimes his Chandleresque metaphors distract. (When the rate of infection among the deer spikes, it’s “like popcorn in a hot pan.”) Usually, however, his imagery vividly reinforces a point. He explains that a laboratory sample from bat feces “is not a virus, just as the text of ‘Hamlet, Prince of Denmark’ is not a performed play” — that the sample is, instead, “the script of a virus.”

Quammen can’t resist snarking that Trump, “as you may have heard, is not a scientific sophisticate,” but he doesn’t waste much time shooting at such an easy target. He describes Elon Musk as an “entrepreneur and spaceman,” and Alex Azar, the secretary of health and human services, as “pliable.” The “Intelligence Community” is “a bodacious aggregation of intelligences” that includes Space Delta 7 — “within the United States Space Force, whatever that is.” Didier Raoult, the French physician who promoted hydroxychloroquine, Quammen terms a “prideful contrarian.” Hydroxychloroquine did indeed have a history of prescription for malaria, and, he deduces, presumably, “Trump listened to people who listened to people who listened to Didier Raoult.”