The Unemployed Epidemiologist Who Predicted the Pandemic

The Unemployed Epidemiologist Who Predicted the Pandemic

The Unemployed Epidemiologist Who Predicted the Pandemic

For years, Rob Wallace warned that industrial agriculture could cause deadly outbreaks at a global scale. It made him an exile in his field.


In early March 2020, Rob Wallace, an evolutionary biologist who had been adrift after an unceremonious exit from the University of Minnesota, flew to New Orleans and then got on a bus to Jackson, Miss., where he was scheduled to speak at an event on health and racial injustice. Wallace, who turned 50 this summer, has been studying and writing about infectious diseases and their origins for half his life. For almost as long, he’s been warning that the practices of industrial agriculture would lead to a deadly pandemic on the scale of Covid-19—or worse. “A pandemic may now be all but inevitable,” he wrote of the H5N1 avian influenza virus in 2007. ”In what would be a catastrophic failure on the part of governments and health ministries worldwide, millions may die.”

Before his trip to Jackson, Wallace had been closely monitoring the outbreak of a novel virus in Wuhan. Though he’d been spooked by a news report that showed a delivery driver in China practicing extreme social distancing, he went ahead with the trip. As an underpaid academic, he needed the money, and as an American, he didn’t expect anything to happen to him. “I too had been infused with a peculiarly American moment, wherein financial desperation meets imperial exceptionalism,” he wrote.

When Wallace returned from his trip, he threw himself back into writing and research with such fervor that he managed to ignore a pounding headache. When the shortness of breath started, his teenage son yelled at him through the computer screen to see a doctor. After he filled out an online questionnaire, Wallace was diagnosed with Covid-19 over the phone.

He’d been infected with something he’d been warning about for years, and like so many around the country and the world, all he could do was to hope to keep breathing. “No test. No antiviral. No masks and no gloves provided. No community health practitioner stopping by to check on me,” Wallace wrote.

“You can intellectually understand something but still not assimilate the oncoming damage,” he told me later, as he recalled the “sour vindication” of having his worst fears come true. “So there’s an aspect of rage, and an arrival at an understanding.”

I met Wallace for coffee on an afternoon in late June. We sat on benches under the shade on the campus of a liberal arts college near his home in St. Paul, Minn. He was dressed in a pale-red short-sleeve shirt, dark jeans, and sneakers. He wore rectangular black-rimmed glasses and a Minnesota Twins baseball hat and had a five o’clock shadow.

Wallace looks more like a dad on the way to his kid’s Little League game than a lab-coat-wearing scientist who used to consult with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the United Nations. That could be because he hasn’t had a job in academia for more than a decade, a circumstance he attributes to his decision to take the implications of his scholarship seriously.

That’s why the book Wallace published last October came with a provocative title—Dead Epidemiologists: On the Origins of Covid-19. Though there are many “brilliant, bright, amazing, and hardworking” epidemiologists whose work he cites, their impact is limited, Wallace said: “They are in the business of cleaning up the mess the system brought about, and that’s the extent to which they’re willing to go.” In his first essay on Covid, “Notes on a Novel Coronavirus,” published in January 2020, Wallace wrote that an epidemiologist is like a “stable boy with a shovel following around elephants at the circus.”

“As an epidemiologist, you’re supposed to want to put yourself out of business,” Wallace said. “Everyone has bills to pay; I understand that. But the extent to which your corruption might lead to a pathogen that could kill a billion people—that’s where my line is.” While he’s not the only Cassandra whose warnings of a pandemic like Covid-19 went unheeded, there are few as clear-eyed about where to direct the blame. “Agribusiness is at war with public health,” he wrote in the March 2020 essay “Covid-19 and the Circuits of Capital,” and if no serious action is taken, the interval before the next pandemic will be “far shorter…than the hundred-year lull since 1918.”

So during that fateful spring, it’s fair to say, Wallace should have been as aware as anyone on earth of the speed with which such a virus could spread in the United States. “Perhaps that was my version of being a dead epidemiologist, who cannot assimilate what he knows about things into action or interpretation,” he admitted. Throughout Dead Epidemiologists—some of which was written while he was afflicted with Covid—Wallace mercilessly attacks the complacency and fecklessness with which establishment scientists and politicians responded to the virus; he also surveys the damage that the pandemic has wrought on the bottom rungs of society. The book is poignantly dedicated to three meatpacking workers who died from Covid-19, and Wallace describes their barbarous working conditions in detail. But the book’s chief concern is the origin of the SARS-CoV2 virus, and Wallace works backward here, from the outbreak to the bat cave.

To fully grasp why we’re living in an age of pandemics, one must first understand how industrial agriculture and deforestation work in tandem. The H5N1 bird flu and the H1N1 swine flu emerged from poultry and hog farms, whereas Ebola and Covid-19 emerged from wild animals. All are the result of zoonotic spillovers—when pathogens that originate in animals cross over to humans and then mutate in ways that allow them to spread to other humans. According to a July 2020 report from the United Nations, three out of four of all “new and emerging human infectious diseases” are zoonotic in origin, and a study in the journal Nature found that agricultural drivers were associated with half of all the zoonotic pathogens that emerged in humans in that time. In Wallace’s view, this increase is “concurrent” with the livestock revolution, the expansion and consolidation of the meat sector that began in the 1970s in the southeastern United States and then spread around the world.

When thousands of the same breed of animal are raised in crowded conditions, the lack of biodiversity creates “an ecology nigh perfect for the evolution of multiple virulent strains of influenza,” Wallace wrote. Farms built near dwindling primary forests where zoonotic pathogens reside have inadvertently “empowered the pathogens to be their very best selves,” he told me. “You strip out the complexity of forest that had been keeping these pathogens bottled up, and you let them have a nice straight shot to the major cities, which gives them opportunities to multiply themselves. This all increases transmission and increases virulence.”

The cities themselves have also become increasingly vulnerable, without investment in public space and health care. “You’ve stripped out everything from environmental sanitation, especially in the Global South, and you’ve made public health an individual intervention,” he added.

But few have made the connection between the past year and a half and the processes that Wallace highlights. “Other than reprobates like me, most Americans think of Covid-19 as a thing that emerged out of China, and doesn’t it have to do with bats or labs or something?” Wallace continued. “So a natural act, or the fault of the Chinese, or both.” That obfuscation makes sense, given what Wallace repeatedly identifies as the essential strategy of agribusiness corporations: They leave their biggest costs off their own balance sheets and let them fall instead on the environment, animals, farmers, workers, consumers, and public health agencies the world over. “Governments are prepared to subsidize agribusiness billions upon billions for damage control in the form of animal and human vaccines, tamiflu, culling operations, and body bags,” he wrote concerning the swine flu in 2009.

Unlike your average MSNBC viewer, Wallace never dismissed the “lab leak” theory of Covid’s origin as outside the realm of possibility or beyond legitimate scientific inquiry. In 2013, he warned that the proliferation over the past 20 years of biosafety labs—which handle and run experiments on some of the world’s deadliest viruses—was making an accident almost inevitable. Though he’s still a proponent of the “field” hypothesis, which holds that the virus crossed over in nature rather than in a laboratory facility, Wallace believes that the origin debate, at least as it’s being hashed out in the public sphere, largely misses the point. “Both represent efforts at avoiding addressing the economic model driving the emergence of virulent pathogens to begin with,” he argued last August on his Patreon page, where his articles often appear first. “The trope best suited for organizing our thinking here isn’t necessarily a murder mystery. It may be better conceived as an alien invasion of our own making.”

It may come as a surprise that Wallace, a scholar of agriculture, was born and raised on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He was an only child and a self-described “pink diaper baby”—his parents to the left of the Democratic Party, but not quite Reds. Rodrick and Deborah Wallace, a physicist and an ecologist, met on a picket line protesting a weapons research lab when they were graduate students at Columbia and Barnard. Rodrick was organizing with a group called Scientists and Engineers for Social and Political Action, an early formation of Science for the People, which would count radical scientists like Richard Levins, Stephen Jay Gould, and Richard Lewontin as members. When Columbia hosted an Earth Day celebration sponsored by Ford Motors, which Deborah called “the first attempt at greenwashing,” the couple helped organize the inaugural People’s Earth Day event, with speakers from the United Farm Workers and the Black Panther Party, as well as the labor leader Tony Mazzocchi.

Shortly after Robert was born, his parents became epidemiologists in their own right. Their study of the destruction of housing in the Bronx in the early 1970s and its public health fallout became the book A Plague on Your Houses: How New York Was Burned Down and National Health Crumbled. The Wallaces showed that the fires that engulfed the Bronx between 1969 and 1976 were the result of the city’s decision to reduce fire services in poor neighborhoods, based on faulty data from the Rand Corporation.

“We were running a disaster site operation out of our house. We didn’t have the time or energy to indoctrinate the child,” Rodrick said during a Zoom call with the couple from their home in the Bronx. “He could tell what was going on through the conversations he heard or through seeing the hundreds of autopsy reports laid out on our terrace from the mass, fatal toxic fires.” Today the Wallace family works collaboratively; Rodrick and Deborah are the coauthors of several chapters in Dead Epidemiologists.

While pursuing a PhD in biology at the City University of New York, where he also contributed articles and illustrations to the student newspaper The Messenger, Wallace studied the HIV crisis in the city in the 1980s and ’90s. He found that AIDS death rates by zip code corresponded to the unequal distribution of the life-saving cocktails of antiretroviral medications, which in turn corresponded to previously existing inequality. “Rob’s dissertation was essentially an extension of the family business,” Deborah said. It marked the beginning of Wallace’s fascination with the social dimensions of infectious disease and served as morbid preparation for the way Covid-19 has laid bare the United States’ and the rest of the globe’s most deeply entrenched injustices.

After graduate school, Wallace went to the University of California, Irvine, to do postdoctoral research with Dr. Walter Fitch, the father of molecular phylogeny, a method of tracing the evolutionary history of and relationships among organisms. In 2007 Wallace was the lead author of the first study that pinpointed the southern Chinese province of Guangdong as the source of the H5N1 avian influenza virus in the mid-1990s. Yet there was something the genetic sequencing he was looking at couldn’t tell him: Why did it emerge there during that time? “I made the mistake of becoming curious about something,” Wallace said. “That’s not a good career move in science.”

He began to read beyond his discipline, investigating history, sociology, and political economy. “In the course of getting these literatures to speak to each other, all of a sudden my vision of what causality is completely changed,” Wallace said. He found that as China’s post-Mao economy opened up to direct foreign investment, it shifted from subsistence agriculture to vertically integrated poultry and hog farming for commodity export. Between 1985 and 2000, skyrocketing chicken and duck production combined with a globally unprecedented migration of people from China’s rural areas to the cities to create the perfect epidemiological storm. “The social sciences are utterly critical to understand how things evolve at the molecular level,” he said.

Following the money changed Wallace’s concept of what a disease hot spot is. If we paid as much attention to the entities that fund deforestation and highly pathogenic farming methods as we do to the outbreak zone, we would have to see the international centers of finance like London, Hong Kong, and New York City as viral epicenters too. “Hong Kong had been painted as a victim in this moralistic story, but it was also the source by virtue of financing the reconstruction of agriculture in Guangdong,” Wallace said. He proposed that China advocate renaming viruses and their variants to reflect their political- economic origins, as he’s begun to do in his own writing, with the “NAFTA Flu” (for the swine flu) and “Neoliberal Ebola.” In July, Keir Starmer of the UK Labour Party proposed naming what was then known as the UK variant after Boris Johnson. Wallace had already named it the BoJo Strain in December.

Wallace’s discovery that macroeconomics could shape microbiology was both a breakthrough and the beginning of the end of his academic career. He had applied for a tenure-track position in the geography department at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, but was hired in 2008 on a contractual basis instead. He suspected this was due to a factional dispute within the department, and he felt marginalized by his colleagues when he arrived. He had also started a blog, Farming Pathogens, and when the swine flu emerged in 2009, Wallace wrote about who was to blame. “When you start speaking out at Minnesota, which is an agricultural shop, and you blame agribusiness for the emergence of a pandemic, you’re not going to get support,” Wallace said. His one-year contract was not renewed, and he was given a token visiting scholar position. “They dumped my body at the Institute for Global Studies. I had no money and no office, basically just access to the library. So I got the message.”

Wallace spent the next few years bitter and angry. He was also broke, living off food stamps and unemployment insurance. He and his wife had gotten divorced. The weeks when his son stayed with him, he’d eat OK; when he was solo, not so much. Eventually he got a job making sandwiches at a deli in St. Paul. Wallace had also written enough blog posts that he could shop around a book of essays, which became Big Farms Make Big Flu: Dispatches on Influenza, Agribusiness, and the Nature of Science, published in 2016 by Monthly Review Press.

“His depth of ecological understanding was just astounding, and he managed to bring it together with epidemiology and social science in amazing ways,” said John Bellamy Foster, the editor of Monthly Review, a professor of sociology at the University of Oregon, and the author of Marx’s Ecology. “One of the problems on the left, like everywhere else, was that issues of nature and science were separate from social science and history. Biology was an issue for biologists, not for social scientists. Rob’s work teaches us to put these together and make sense of what’s going on.”

While Wallace’s harrowing predictions in Big Farms Make Big Flu might have seemed alarmist in 2016, today, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, they look prophetic. As Wallace’s star has risen over the past year and a half, the book has been reprinted in Spanish and Italian, and he’s been interviewed by media outlets in India, Brazil, and Germany. “His work is irresistible,” Foster said, “because we are facing these growing epidemiological and economic crises, and Rob’s analysis is really the only realistic lens to understand the problem. His critique is now a common ground for critical intellectuals around the world. And it’s happened very fast.”

Wallace’s move from studying the genetic sequencing of viruses to analyzing their origins is a matter not just of conviction but of necessity. Once a deadly virus emerges, “the horse has left the barn,” he is fond of saying. This is where the infamous Wuhan “wet market” enters the picture, which Wallace emphasizes must be understood as part of a web of economic, political, and ecological relations. When China’s farms industrialized, many small farmers sought to become purveyors of wild food. As big farms took up more and more land, the small farmers were forced to raise or hunt animals closer to or within the forests where the most exotic pathogens might reside. Say, in a bat cave.

Wallace’s personal theory is that Covid-19 “emerged along the increasingly industrialized wild animal commodity chain from hinterlands and border towns as far south and west as Yunnan. On the last leg of its domestic tour, the virus made its way to Wuhan by truck or plane and then the world,” he wrote in May. And while southern China has been ground zero for several outbreaks, because of the country’s unique path to development in the late 20th century, and the Chinese government is not without blame, Wallace notes that the same thing could—and often does—happen elsewhere. Pandemics are just one symptom of a broader ecological sickness: a “rift” in the planet’s social metabolism that occurs when economic abstractions are treated as more real than ecological limits, to borrow the Marxist framework pioneered by ecosocialist theorists like Foster and expanded by Wallace.

This rift between ecology and the economy runs parallel with the growing political divide between urban and rural, Wallace said. Early in the pandemic, his organization, the Agroecology and Rural Economics Research Corps, launched an international collective called Pandemic Research for the People, focusing on “the needs of everyday people most immediately affected” by Covid-19. Many of America’s farmers, for example, have been in decades-long exploitative contractual relationships with agribusiness corporations. In Minnesota, they’re in such dire straits that it has led to an epidemic of suicides.

“We’re trying to bridge gaps and signal that their plight matters,” Wallace said. “It requires a respect for people who don’t have degrees at the end of their names but have a profound understanding of the systems you’re looking at.” It’s difficult to argue with the notion that any movement or coalition capable of loosening the grip of agribusiness corporations would have to address this fracture between the city and the hinterland. Such a movement, he continued, would seek to deliver on the slogan from Charles Booker’s 2020 Democratic primary campaign for the Kentucky Senate: “From the hood to the holler.” Or, to widen the scope, “From the South Side of Chicago to South America,” as Wallace wrote in a recent Patreon dispatch, once again reminding us that the pandemic is “over” only for a tiny minority of people on the planet.

The alternative is agroecology, which is simultaneously a science, an agricultural practice, and a radical anti-capitalist movement with roots in Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement and the international peasant alliance La Via Campesina. Wallace defines an agroecological system as one that is “tied to the state of the surrounding landscape from which resources are continually drawn (and returned).” The way out, then, is not so much to create a new world, or to escape into space like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk seem to be planning, but “more along the lines of coming back to earth.”

Wallace is now at work on a book of essays called Revolution Space: Adventures Outside Capitalist Science, which will extend beyond the natural and social sciences to incorporate the humanities, most notably ancient mythology. Toward the end of our conversation, he took off his glasses and leaned over the table to show me the inscription—“Epimethean Vision”—printed in white letters on the inside of his lens. It’s become something of a life mantra for Wallace: You have to look back to see what’s coming. “Foresight is important, but you need hindsight—not to go back to some prelapsarian fantasy, but to draw the lessons that happened previously so you don’t do it again,” he explained. “We’re getting right back on track to what brought us here, except next time it could be a pathogen that emerges to kill a billion people.”

While he acknowledges that cynicism is an “occupational hazard,” Wallace’s work on Covid-19 has brought him more acolytes than detractors. “I’ve found when systems are in crisis, there is room for weirdos like me,” he said. Like the archetypal outsider scientist at the beginning of a disaster movie, Wallace has struggled to be heard. But by the third act, what once seemed like doomsday prophecy could become the basis for recovery. “If I’ve arisen in this historical moment, it’s because I was thrown aside in such a way that I landed in a realm that forced me to become a different scientist,” Wallace said. “I went through the hellfire of ostracization and marginalization. It’s true, I don’t want to go there ever again. But I also understand that one can say what’s necessary to say and still survive another day.”

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