Books

Understanding the virus

Novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV), people in white medical face mask. Concept of coronavirus quarantine vector illustration. Seamless pattern.  

Ever since the first outbreak of the virus that caused the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists have been probing its origins. While many believe that the virus jumped from animals to humans, others believe that the coronavirus may have escaped from a lab in China. There is nothing conclusive yet.

Dorothy H. Crawford’s pre-COVID book, Viruses: A Very Short Introduction (OUP) explains “how clever these entities really are”. Talking about killer viruses like Ebola, Zika and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), she wonders whether we can ever “live in harmony with viruses”, considering the ways in which we need to adapt to prevent emerging viruses with devastating consequences.

In his new book, Invisible Empire: The Natural History of Viruses (Viking), Pranay Lal delves deeper , explaining that among all microbes, “viruses are possibly the most enigmatic and certainly the most feared.” But Lal argues that we must find ways to make peace with viruses because we cannot outnumber or outmatch them. “Viruses are a part of us. We cannot eliminate them without making ourselves extinct.” This past year, he writes, nature has been telling us that we must slow down our greed machine – “we need an anthropo-pause.”

To those bewildered about the ‘new’ emerging coronavirus, Deborah MacKenzie’s work, COVID-19: The Pandemic That Never Should Have Happened, and How to Stop the Next One is an eye-opener for she highlights that we have been “warned over and over again that this was likely, yet somehow most countries weren’t ready.” She writes that as far back as 1992, top infectious diseases scientists in the U.S. had warned about “emerging infections” and that the threat from “disease causing microbes” will continue and “may even intensify” in coming years. They used “cautious” language as any stronger language might have triggered “disbelief.”

Michael Lewis’ The Premonition: A Pandemic Story (Penguin) tells the story of a group of ‘scientific misfits’ who anticipated, traced and hunted the coronavirus. Health officer Charity Dean, pandemic planners Richard Hatchett, Carter Mecher and a host of others tried to urge the federal Government and the White House to take the pandemic threat seriously. One of the ways to tackle a pandemic is widespread vaccination. As MacKenzie writes in her book, as genetic variants of the virus evolved and spread, it became clear that we won’t be clear of COVID anywhere until people are immunized everywhere – yet we are failing to do that as rich countries have hogged the vaccine.

Much more will be written on COVID vaccines, but first off the block is Gregory Zuckerman’s A Shot to Save the World (Penguin). As the world locked down last year, Zuckerman began tracking the vaccine chase. “Developing, testing, manufacturing, and then delivering safe and effective vaccines within a single year is a feat unmatched in modern science,” he notes. With access to researchers at Pfizer, Moderna, BioNTech, Oxford University, Johnson & Johnson, he conducted interviews and gained their insight. “Most of all,” he writes, “the COVID-19 vaccine story is one of heroism, dedication and remarkable persistence.” For instance, to continue BioNTech’s research into how a molecule (messenger RNA) could be used to carry instructions to the body and ward off illness, the founder, Ugur Sahin and his colleagues crisscrossed the U.S. and Europe to raise funds and awareness. Lessons from the vaccine race will perhaps make the world better prepared when another deadly pathogen finds its way.


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Printable version | Jan 28, 2022 3:50:22 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/understanding-the-virus/article37783344.ece

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