In the first weeks of the coronavirus pandemic, I couldn’t bear to read about our collective early missteps. Not only because the implicit rebuke felt futile—what was the point in knowing that the grim reality we were living could have been avoided?—but because, in my case, it also felt deeply personal. Each article I read about missing the warning signs of a devastating new virus reminded me that decades ago, scientists had been worrying about that very thing, and a few science journalists were writing about their alarm. I was one of them.
When I started researching this in 1990, the term “emerging viruses” had just been coined by a young virologist, Stephen Morse. He would become the main character in my book A Dancing Matrix, published three years later. I described him then as an assistant professor straight out of central casting: earnest, bespectacled, a man who lived life largely in the mind.
Morse and other scientists were identifying conditions—climate change, massive urbanization, the proximity of humans to farm or forest animals that were viral reservoirs—that could unleash microbes never before seen in humans and therefore unusually lethal. They were warning that, thanks to an increasingly global economy, the ease of international air travel, and the movement of refugees due to famines and wars, these killer pathogens could easily spread around the world. Sound familiar?