Life in Quarantine

This COVID crisis is not the first time I have had to deal with quarantines. My first quarantine experience occurred late on the evening of May 9, 1974, when I was a young zookeeper. My partner and I had just returned to the zoo from the airport. Our job had been to pick up two wooden crates from an international flight, return to the zoo’s quarantine facility, and uncrate the animals—two baby gorillas. They would come to be named Joseph and Josephine. We were to give them some food and water and, if they appeared healthy, leave them for the night. The veterinarians would give them a thorough exam in the morning.

While my partner was down the hall tending to his own crate, I sat cross-legged in a twelve-foot-by-twelve-foot holding stall. The heavy bedding of hay and wood shavings was both comfortable to sit in and soothing in its scent of fresh pine. I lifted the crate’s sliding door out of its track, laid it on top of the box, and settled a few feet from the opening, peering into the darkness within. My plan was to sit quietly and wait for Joseph to emerge.

We sat staring at each other for a long time. He had wedged himself toward the far end of the crate, glancing at me without making direct eye contact. He was thirty pounds of black fur and dark eyes, clearly frightened, and unsure of what to do next. As I was about to give up and leave him to explore his new surroundings, he stirred and walked calmly out of the crate and into my lap. He smelled earthy—a combination of freshly turned soil and over-ripe fruit. I wanted to comfort the little guy and welcome him to his new home. I knew he would be safe and well cared for, with the best food, other gorillas for companionship, and modern veterinary care.

That zoo quarantine nearly half a century ago was a pretty loose affair. We were mainly worried about parasites, both external and internal, and diseases that were transmissible to other animals in the collection. I may have been wearing coveralls that could be removed and left at the zoo, but I don’t recall being concerned with zoonotic diseases.

In the mid-1990s, I read Richard Preston’s book, The Hot Zone. It was described as “a terrifying true story” about what happens when “a highly infectious, deadly virus from the central African rain forest suddenly appears in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.”. The disease was a viral hemorrhagic fever that was discovered in 1976 near the Ebola River in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. There is no cure for the Ebola virus. It has been infecting people from time to time, leading to outbreaks in several African countries. Scientists still do not know where Ebola virus comes from. When I read that book, my mind drifted back to that May evening and an encounter with a baby gorilla that had flown in from Africa. I could have been at the epicenter of a zoonotic disease outbreak.

A zoonosis is a disease that is naturally transmissible from animals to humans. It can be something as common as tuberculosis or Lyme disease or as scary as bubonic plague or Ebola. If a pathogen only infects humans—like polio or smallpox—it is theoretically possible to eliminate it by vaccinating everyone on the planet. Zoonotic pathogens can hide in an animal host like a rodent, bird, or bat and reoccur in outbreaks—or spillovers..

As frightening as Preston’s book was, it was nothing compared to the book I read a few weeks ago. David Quammen’s book, Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic. Here is the description provided by the book’s publisher:

The next big human pandemic―the next disease cataclysm, perhaps on the scale of AIDS or the 1918 influenza―is likely to be caused by a new virus coming to humans from wildlife. (Sound familiar?) Experts call such an event “spillover” and they warn us to brace ourselves. David Quammen has tracked this subject from the jungles of Central Africa, the rooftops of Bangladesh, and the caves of southern China to the laboratories where researchers work in space suits to study lethal viruses. He illuminates the dynamics of Ebola, SARS, bird flu, Lyme disease, and other emerging threats and tells the story of AIDS and its origins as it has never before been told. 

Today, it seems the whole world is engulfed in a spillover event. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), COVID-19 is caused by a coronavirus, a large family of viruses that are common in people and many species of animals, including camels, cattle, cats, and bats.  Rarely, animal coronaviruses can infect people and then spread between people. This occurred with MERS, SARS, and now with the virus that causes COVID-19. All three of these viruses have their origins in bats.

Over the course of my career, I became familiar with the dangers of zoonotic diseases. We learned to check incoming zoo animals for tuberculosis, brucellosis, rabies, and more. We began wearing face masks, using antiseptic footbaths, and following strict protocols. But that was not the case in 1974 when Joseph, the baby gorilla, emerged from his crate. He sat on my lap for a few seconds, facing away from me. Then, without warning, he placed his mouth over my bare right forearm, and, in slow motion, he bit down—hard. So hard, in fact, that I hollered in pain and jerked my arm away. I pushed him out of my lap as gently as I could under the painful circumstances and left the stall to examine my injury. The bite broke the skin slightly, leaving the bloody imprint of his upper and lower teeth on my arm like some dental impression. My worries about what diseases he might be carrying escalated ten days later when Joseph died. Fortunately for me, his death was due to a nutritional deficiency. As it turned out, he had no transmissible diseases, and obviously, I have survived with no ill effects. This incident occurred two years before we knew about the Ebola virus and the other deadly diseases coming out of Africa, or I would have been well and truly frightened. The memory of that incident makes my current opportunity to quarantine myself and avoid a deadly virus all the more acceptable.

One of the things that attracted me to David Quammen’s book was the publisher’s description, which goes on to say, “Spillover reads like a mystery tale, full of mayhem and clues and questions. When the Next Big One arrives, what will it look like? From which innocent host animal will it emerge? Will we be ready?”

A good question—and the answer is NO. We were not ready, in spite of repeated warnings. And we probably won’t be ready when the next virus jumps from animals to humans. That’s right. There will be more zoonotic viruses, just like there will be more natural disasters like hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes. Spillover warns us of that fact. The book is frighteningly real because it describes the COVID world we are living in today—and it was published eight years ago in 2012.

I don’t mind quarantining myself and washing my hands obsessively. I am okay with the discomfort and inconvenience of wearing a face-mask when out in public. I learned my lesson four decades ago when I allowed an animal from the Ebola infested jungles of Africa to bite me. I got away with it then. I don’t intend to ignore the warnings this time.

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