out of breath
Simon and Schuster, $29.99
When COVID-19 hit the global stage in 2020, it was deadly and devastating. In the first few weeks of January, researchers identified the cause: The culprit was the coronavirus, a relative of the virus that caused the 2003 SARS outbreak. Echoes of what happened nearly 20 years ago — before the SARS outbreak was brought under control, thousands were infected and at least 774 people died — sent ripples of anxiety across the virology community.
Scientists of all backgrounds are eager to learn about the new scourge known as SARS-CoV-2. Hospitals around the world were quickly overwhelmed, and the daily lives of billions of people were thrown into chaos. Quarantine, quarantine, N95 masks and social distancing entered our collective vocabulary. out of breathby science writer David Quammen, takes readers on a two-year science roller coaster.
The book charts the early days of the virus, SARS-CoV-2, in China, how decades of science helped researchers create an effective vaccine within a year, and the arrival of highly mutated variants. This has nothing to do with social unrest or public health failures (and successes). While Quammen acknowledges the importance of these aspects of the pandemic, his choice to focus on a “fire hose” of scientific research—for better or worse—is advancing our understanding of COVID-19.
He delves into one of the most controversial questions in the pandemic: Where did SARS-CoV-2 come from? Nature or laboratory? Quammen details the saga. First, there are concerns that some features of the virus appear to be engineered. Those concerns were quickly dispelled when researchers found these traits in viruses from wild bats and pangolins. It was then suggested that workers in labs studying bat viruses could accidentally become infected and unknowingly spread the virus to others.
Rather than deny the hypothesis of accidental leaks in the lab, Quammen walks readers through genetic and epidemiological data. This includes recent evidence to support this with the virus — maybe in two separate jumps – From a Unidentified animals at Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, China. Through his conversations with experts in virus ecology and evolution, readers learn about the nuances of how virologists conduct their research and the controversies of gain-of-function studies that test what happens when a virus acquires new traits. Quammen’s conclusion: Accidental lab leaks are not impossible. “But it seems unlikely.”
To understand the pandemic, Quammen draws lessons from our previous conflicts with coronaviruses, including the SARS outbreak and 2012 MERS outbreak in the Middle East (SN: December 28, 2013, p. twenty three).part his 2012 book overflow Focus on the bat origin of the SARS outbreak (SN: October 20, 2012, p. 30). The book’s foresight is disturbing.If the original SARS coronavirus was most contagious before symptoms appeared, Quammen overflow, officials will have a harder time ending the outbreak. “It will be a darker story,” he wrote. But that’s exactly what happened with SARS-CoV-2. People can spread the virus to others before they know they are sick, a feature that has allowed COVID-19 to spiral out of control.
As a science journalist who has followed SARS-CoV-2 since its discovery, I found out of breath Unexpectedly cathartic. My memories of the past few years have blurred together. out of breath presents the comprehensive science story of the pandemic, connecting pieces that felt so out of place at the time.
Some readers may feel that it is too early to examine a pandemic that is not yet over. But SARS-CoV-2 will certainly not be the last harmful virus to emerge. Quammen put the pandemic in the context of the coronavirus scare that came before it to underscore how science is built on itself. One thing is for sure: there will be another. “Wherever SARS-CoV-2 came from, there are many more terrible viruses, no matter where it came from,” he wrote.
purchase out of breath From Bookshop.org. Science News is an affiliate of Bookshop.org and will receive a commission on purchases made through the links in this article.