Simon & Schuster, $29.99
When COVID-19 burst onto the world stage in 2020, it was deadly and disruptive. In the first weeks of January, researchers pinpointed the cause: a coronavirus was to blame, a relative of the virus that caused the 2003 SARS outbreak. Echoes of what happened almost 20 years ago early – thousands of people were infected and at least 774 people died before the SARS epidemic was brought under control – sent waves of anxiety through the world of virology.
Scientists from all walks of life have raced to understand the new plague, dubbed SARS-CoV-2. Hospitals around the world were quickly overwhelmed and the daily lives of billions of people were disrupted. Quarantine, isolation, N95 masks and social distancing have entered our collective lexicon. Breathlessby science writer David Quammen, takes readers on the ensuing two-year science roller coaster.
The book is a portrait of the virus – the beginnings of SARS-CoV-2 in China, how decades of science helped researchers design effective vaccines within a year, the arrival of highly mutated variants. It is not about societal upheavals or public health failures (and successes). Although Quammen recognizes the importance of these aspects of the pandemic, he chooses to focus on the “fire hose” of scientific studies – good and bad – that have driven our understanding of COVID-19.
It dives deep into one of the most controversial questions of the pandemic: where did SARS-CoV-2 come from? Nature or laboratory? Quammen describes the saga in elaborate detail. First, there were fears that some features of the virus appeared artificial. These concerns were quickly dispelled when researchers discovered these characteristics in viruses from wild bats and pangolins. Then there was the thought that workers in a lab studying bat viruses might have been accidentally infected and unknowingly passed the virus on to others.
Rather than rejecting this accidental lab leak hypothesis, Quammen walks readers step-by-step through the genetic and epidemiological data. This includes recent evidence supporting the scenario that the virus emerged – maybe in two separate jumps – of one unknown animal at Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, China. Through his conversations with experts in virus ecology and evolution, readers learn the nuances of how virologists do research and the controversies of gain-of-function studies that test what happens when viruses acquire new features. Quammen’s conclusion: An accidental lab leak is not impossible. “But that seems unlikely.”
To understand the pandemic, Quammen draws on lessons learned from our previous coronavirus encounters, including the SARS outbreak and the 2012 MERS outbreak in the Middle-East (SN: 12/28/13, p. 23). Part of his 2012 book Overflow focused on the origin of the SARS epidemic in bats (SN: 10/20/12, p. 30). This volume is incredibly prescient. If the original SARS coronavirus had been most contagious before symptoms began, Quammen wrote in Overflow, officials would have had a much harder time ending the outbreak. “It would be a much darker story,” he wrote. But that’s exactly what happened with SARS-CoV-2. People can transmit the virus to others before they know they are sick, a trait that has helped COVID-19 spiral out of control.
As a science journalist who has followed SARS-CoV-2 since its discovery, I found Breathless be surprisingly cathartic. My memories of the past few years have faded. Breathless presents the radical scientific history of the pandemic, connecting puzzle pieces that at the time had seemed so out of place.
Some readers may think it’s too early to review a pandemic that isn’t even over. But SARS-CoV-2 will certainly not be the last harmful virus to emerge. Quammen puts the pandemic in the context of the coronavirus scares that came before to highlight how science builds on itself. And one thing is certain: there will be another. “There are many other dreaded viruses from which SARS-CoV-2 originated,” he writes, “wherever it is found.”
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