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Authors say coronavirus raises threats to both health and society

David Quammen

What do public-lands opponent Ammon Bundy and immunologist Anthony Fauci have in common? They both know that COVID-19 is a serious problem, according to two Bozeman experts. But only one trusts science.

On Wednesday night, David Quammen and Betsy Gaines-Quammen held a Facebook talk on the COVID-19 pandemic and the surprisingly related issue of the fight over public lands.

David Quammen is a renowned science writer who is currently in high demand for interviews because of his 2012 book, “Spillover: Animal infections and the next pandemic,” which predicted the rise of a disease like COVID-19.

“Decades ago, scientists knew that coronaviruses were exceptionally dangerous,” David said. “I asked people in 2010 ‘what’s the next big one?’ Scientists said it would be a virus, coming out of a wild animal, very possibly a coronavirus. What kind of wild animal? Very possibly a bat. Where? Very possibly a wet market. Where? Very possibly in China. Ten years ago, I was hearing that from scientists and put that in my book. And yet, the policy makers were left flat-footed.”

The problem with coronaviruses, Quammen said, is they evolve quickly, jump from wildlife to humans, and can be “silent spreaders” – viruses shed by people who are infected but don’t yet feel symptoms.

Quammen criticized the federal government and especially the Trump administration for failing to prepare the nation for the current pandemic. More medical equipment and supplies should have been stockpiled. Stockpiling may be expensive, Quammen said, but it costs less than what the U.S. is having to do now, with a pending Congressional bailout bill of $2 trillion and almost 3.3 million filing for unemployment last week due to businesses having to lay workers off.

Many, including the U.S. Surgeon General, are saying the worst is still to come. But Quammen said several people are already asking him what can be done to avoid the next pandemic.

“This is what I’m talking about all day, everyday, right now. What can be done to delay the next one or deal with the next one better,” Quammen said. “We have the science to detect these things, but we need more support for that science.”

For example, scientists with the Global Virome Project, conceived in 2016, are spending 10 years exploring the wild places and animals of Earth to discover new viruses that could potentially infect humans. That way, they’ll know more about a virus before a possible release occurs.

Quammen’s voice rose as he told of interviewing a scientist at Columbia University who had developed a screening technology that could detect whether people were infected with a particular disease as they came through airports. After scientists loaded the screener’s computer chip with the genome of a newly identified virus, agents would take cheek swabs from each traveler.

The screening device could rapidly compare genetic material in the swab with that of the target virus and indicate if someone was infected by the time they went through security checkpoints.

“That’s what I was hearing about 10 years ago. Where is that technology?” Quammen said. “We need that. We need private and public support for that kind of thing. And we need additional preparedness support in public health.”

But public health hasn’t been a priority during the Trump administration. Four days ago, Quammen interviewed Betsy Cameron, the former Senior Director for Global Health Security and Biodefense under the National Security Council, who spoke of working on pandemic preparedness for three years during the Obama administration after the 2014 Ebola epidemic.

When Trump took over in January 2017, Cameron was told that her office was being downgraded. Then, in April 2018 when John Bolton took over as National Security Advisor, Cameron was told the funding for her office was being cut. Cameron told Quammen she didn’t know who or what was behind the decision.

Trump later fired Bolton in September 2019. Now, Cameron is working as a preparedness expert at the nonprofit Nuclear Threat Initiative.

The lack of preparedness reflects a trend that has been building in the U.S. over the past few decades: a resistance to science.

“It’s going to be bad, because we weren’t prepared. We live in a place where there is a lot of anti-science,” Gaines-Quammen said. “We also have this idea of American exceptionalism, where we think we’re going to do better than everybody else in the world. Because of that, we did not prepare adequately. And so, we’re in a real mess.”

Gaines-Quammen has dealt with people who vigorously wave the American flag and reject science out of religious conviction. Specifically, she has spent a lot of time talking to the Bundy’s, both Cliven and his son Ammon, for her book “American Zion,” published this week.

Cliven Bundy gained notoriety for his 2014 armed standoff with federal employees over the fact that he refuses to pay the Bureau of Land Management for grazing his cattle on public land in Nevada. Ammon followed in Cliven’s footsteps when he organized another armed standoff in January 2016 at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon.

The two Mormon ranchers don’t acknowledge the federal government’s authority while simultaneously quoting the U.S. Constitution. But only certain parts, Gaines-Quammen said. They also justify their actions by saying they’re carrying out God’s will.

“He represents ‘We the people’ as only people who agree with him. That’s so infuriating,” Gaines-Quammen said.

The problem is the Trump administration has enabled people like the Bundy’s by encouraging an anti-science attitude, doing everything it can to diminish the amount of science that goes into policy decisions, especially those dealing with public lands and climate change.

Add to that a social media that allows conspiracy theories – such as COVID-19 being a Democratic hoax or a bio-weapon developed by the Chinese – to flourish, and science is under siege.

“These are really anti-science circles. (Ammon’s) come out and said science is just a religion,” Gaines-Quammen said.

However, as anti-science as he is, Ammon told Gaines-Quammen a few nights ago that he believes that COVID-19 is a real threat and that it’s morally right to spend time isolated with family.

“Then he said, ‘The government is going to use this crisis to consolidate power,’” Gaines-Quammen said. “I absolutely agree that that is something that we need to be vigilant about. We’re seeing signs about that right now.”

Quammen said he and others are also concerned that Trump, who calls himself a “war-time president,” may use COVID-19 as an excuse to cancel the general election in November, so he can retain power.

However, Gaines-Quammen said Ammon might pose his own threat, based on his correspondence over the past few days. In a statement, Ammon wrote that orders to self-isolate go against the freedoms of America and that “this will not happen in Idaho.”

Idaho issued a self-isolate order on Wednesday. Ammon is streaming a meeting about the order to his followers on Thursday night.

“This might be the next thing he uses as a stand. He’s very concerned about the lockdowns,” Gaines-Quammen said. “This particular outbreak might be the next big Bundy action.”

Looking forward, Quammen said his sources say COVID-19 probably can’t be controlled like Ebola because it spreads more stealthily. We may be able to quell the outbreak of 2020, but oblivious carriers will continue to carry COVID-19 to less prepared regions, allowing it to circulate around the world like measles or polio.

“We take measles for granted because we vaccinate against it,” Quammen said. “But we have the anti-science anti-vaxxers. And there are places where nobody has been vaccinated against measles. This coronavirus may turn into something like that. Something that is not a pandemic but is endemic, so it’s always making people sick somewhere and killing people somewhere. That’s a possibility.”

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.