Covid-19 and the Next Big One

In the summer of 2017 I was sitting on a hotel veranda over looking a tropical forest and drinking scotch with the hotel manager and biologist colleagues, discussing the possibility that Ebola could reach the island of Trinidad during Carnival. About 40% of Trinidad’s population is of African descent and most are Roman Catholics. The Lenten celebration brings thousands of tourists to the island – and some are from Africa. One person carrying the Ebola virus arriving by plane could easily trigger an outbreak on this small, crowded island.

A spillover is a single event where a pathogen from one species moves into a second species; such an event can result in an outbreak. David Quammen chronicled past spillover events in his 2012 book of the same name (Spillover). These events are in part due to deforestation, the bush-meat trade, and humans relentless assaults on the biosphere which served as the life support system for planet Earth. Quammen frames the events within an ecologic context of the pathogen, the host, and the increasing human population. He focuses recurrently on the NBO (next big one) and how, if HIV or Ebola virus were more easily transmissible, no one would remain to read his book.

COVID-19 is the result of a spillover, the Ebola outbreak a few years ago – was the result of a spillover, HIV was the result of a spillover, and bird and swine flu outbreaks are the results of spillover events.

In the last chapter, “It Depends,” Quammen is particularly sobering. He places the outbreaks in an ecologic context. An outbreak is a rapid and explosive increase in the abundance of a particular species. Thus, maybe humans are the current outbreak in the world. We have become a dense population, and we have been busy altering the natural environment for millennia, and the next big one is around the corner. Quammen suggests that the next big one is likely to be a flu strain. But, it does not have to be.

America and the world need to be prepared for the next pandemic and we need to be ready for the possibility that we will face two pandemic pathogens simultaneously. A double pandemic is not out of the question and if America could fumble so badly against one rapidly spreading virus, how would we fare against two spreading at the same time?

Donald Trump is clueless on how to manage a scientific response because of his narcissism. He makes statements like – who would have ever guessed we would have a pandemic? Clearly David Quammen, the WHO, the CDC and virtually every one who has paid attention in basic biology or microbiology. Just because he lacks knowledge – he thinks everyone else does.

Climate change, deforestation, the bush-meat markets, and the way that much of the third world raises poultry and pigs are all interrelated and they place humanity closer to extinction. We need societal level changes across the globe, and we need them quickly.

Trump lacks the leadership skills to control a relatively simple pandemic like COVID 19. All he needed to do was to make people wear masks, social distance, test, and trace. He did none of these. Imagine what he will do about controlling a combination of simultaneous crises: COVID-19, climate change, systemic racism and social injustice. The man is a walking, breathing disaster.