Simon & Schuster, $29.99
When COVID-19 burst onto the global scene in 2020, it was deadly and disruptive. In the first weeks of January, researchers identified the cause: The coronavirus was to blame for a related virus that caused the 2003 SARS outbreak. The echo of what happened almost twenty years ago – thousands were infected and at least 774 people died before the Sars outbreak was brought under control – sent circles of anxiety across virology in the world.
Scientists from all over the world have come together to understand the new scourge, called SARS-CoV-2. Hospitals around the world were soon overwhelmed, and daily life was disrupted for billions of people. Quarantine, isolation, N95 masks and social spaces have entered our collective lexicon. Gaspingby science writer David Quamen, takes readers on a scientific rollercoaster ride for the next two years.
The book is a portrait of the man – SARS-CoV-2 in the early days in China, how decades of science have helped researchers craft an effective vaccine within a year, the arrival of highly modified variants. It is not about social failures or public health (and successes). However, while he recognizes the importance of those pandemic aspects, he wants to focus on the “focus” of scientific studies – both good and bad – that have pushed our understanding of COVID-19.
He delves into one of the pandemic’s most difficult questions: Where did SARS-CoV-2 come from? Nature or lab? How accurately does the saga describe it? The first concerns were that some features of the engineered virus appeared. Those concerns were quickly dispelled when researchers found those characteristics in viruses from wild bats and pangolins. It was then thought that workers in a bat research lab might have accidentally become infected with the virus and unknowingly spread the virus to others.
Rather than dismiss the hypothesis as an accidental lab leak, Quamen takes readers step-by-step through genetic and epidemiological data. That includes the latest evidence supporting the hypothesis that the virus emerged — possibly in two separate jumps — from an unknown animal at the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan, China. Through interviews with experts in virus ecology and evolution, readers learn the nuances of how virologists research and experience the controversial studies of gain-of-function that occur when viruses acquire new features. However, the conclusion: An accidental lab leak is not impossible. “But it seems inappropriate.”
To understand the pandemic, Quamen draws on lessons from our previous run-ins with the coronavirus, including the SARS outbreak and the 2012 MERS outbreak in the Middle East (SN: 12/28/13, p. 23). Part of his 2012 book Spillover focused on the bat origin of the Sars outbreak (SN: 10/20/12, p. 30). He is foreboding to me. If the original SARS coronavirus had been contagious before the symptoms began, Quamen wrote in Spilloverthe police would have had a much more serious time of rebellion. “The story would be much darker,” he wrote. But this is exactly what happened with SARS-CoV-2. People can pass the virus to others before they know they’re sick, a feature that helped covid-19 spiral out of control.
As a science journalist who followed the discovery of SARS-CoV-2, I found it Gasping To be wonderfully cathartic. My memories of the past few years are jumbled together. Gasping He tells the sweeping scientific story of the pandemic, an enigmatic link that felt so out of place at the time.
Some readers may feel that it is too soon to scrutinize a pandemic that is not even over. But SARS-CoV-2 will certainly not be the last harmful virus to emerge. How he puts the pandemic in the context of the coronavirus scare that preceded it to illustrate how science builds on itself. It is also certain: it will be different. “There are many scary viruses where SARS-CoV-2 came out,” he said, “wherever it was.”
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