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IN MY OBSESSIVE reading about the coronavirus pandemic, I’ve avoided articles that focus on the early missteps that could have stopped COVID-19 if only we’d been more attentive, organized, and responsive. Those articles were wreaking havoc with my anxiety level. The time for “coulda, woulda, shoulda” would be later, I figured; what matters now is whatever needs to be done in the next few days, and the next few days after that.

There’s also a personal reason why I’ve boycotted articles about early warning signs: Scientists were detailing those early warning signs decades ago, and a handful of science journalists were writing about their work. I was one of those journalists.

When I started researching A Dancing Matrix in 1990, the term “emerging viruses” had just been coined by a young virologist named Stephen Morse, who would become the main character in my book. I wrote about how experts were identifying conditions that could lead to the introduction of new, potentially devastating pathogens—climate change, massive urbanization, the proximity of humans to farm or forest animals that serve as viral reservoirs—with the worldwide spread of those microbes accelerated by war, the global economy, and international air travel. Too many of us, I wrote, were blithely going about our business despite the growing threat. Sound familiar?

“The single biggest threat to man’s continued dominance on the planet is the virus.” I used that searing quote from Nobel laureate Joshua Lederberg, who was president of Rockefeller University and Morse’s boss, in the introduction to my book. Back then I thought it was a little bit melodramatic. Now it strikes me as terrifyingly accurate.

The other day, I phoned Morse to see how he’s holding up. He’s a professor of epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and in the age range of the most vulnerable now, he told me. (I am, too.) He and his wife are self-quarantining in their apartment on New York City’s Upper West Side.

“I’m discouraged, yes, to find we’re not better prepared after all this, and we’re still deep in denial,” Morse said. He went straight to a favorite quote, from management guru Peter Drucker, who once was asked, “What is the worst mistake you could make?” His answer, according to Morse: “To be prematurely right.” Your actions alone can’t save the planet—but these habits can help

 

But Morse and I didn’t get it exactly “right,” of course, prematurely or otherwise. Nobody did. When I was asked on my book tour what the next pandemic was likely to be, I replied that most of my sources said it would be influenza.

“I never liked lists,” Morse told me now, adding that he always knew the next plague could come from anywhere. But in the early 1990s, his colleagues did tend to focus on influenza, so I did, too. Maybe that was a mistake; telling people the next pandemic would be caused by influenza didn’t make it seem nightmarish at all. The flu? I get that every year. We have a vaccine for that.

So maybe the warnings were too easy to dismiss as “just the flu”—though I insisted, throughout my book and every time I talked about it, on calling the virus by its full name, influenza, to strip it of any possible familiarity. Maybe my book was too obscure, or I should have worked harder to promote its message. Maybe I should have stayed on the emerging virus beat instead of wandering off to write about so many other things.

But other journalists also were writing books with the same message. Some of them were huge bestsellers; I used to jokingly refer to mine as the “prequel” to the books that made a mark just a year later, The Hot Zone by Richard Preston and The Coming Plague by Laurie Garrett. (More recently there was another bestseller, Spillover by David Quammen, a follow-up to a story he wrote about emerging diseases for National Geographic in 2007.) All of them describe the same dire scenarios, the same war games, the same cries of being woefully unprepared. Why wasn’t any of that enough?

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