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 identified the cause: the culprit was a coronavirus, a relative of the virus that caused the 2003 SARS outbreak. Echoes of what had happened almost 20 years earlier (thousands of people were infected and at least 774 people died before the SARS outbreak was brought under control) sent ripples of anxiety throughout the world of virology.
Scientists of all backgrounds scrambled to understand the new scourge, dubbed SARS-CoV-2. Hospitals around the world were soon overwhelmed, and the daily lives of billions of people became disorderly. Quarantine, isolation, N95 masks and social distancing entered our collective lexicon. Pantingby science writer David Quammen, takes readers on a two-year science roller coaster.
The book is a portrait of the virus: the early days of SARS-CoV-2 in China, how decades of science helped researchers create effective vaccines in a year, the arrival of highly mutated variants. This is not about social upheaval or the failures (and successes) of public health. While Quammen acknowledges the importance of those aspects of the pandemic, he chooses to focus on the “fire hose” of scientific studies, both good and bad, that fueled our understanding of COVID-19.
It takes a deep dive into one of the most controversial questions of the pandemic: Where did SARS-CoV-2 come from? Nature or the laboratory? Quammen describes the saga in elaborate detail. There were first concerns that some of the features of the virus seemed manipulated. Those concerns were quickly allayed when the researchers found those features in viruses from bats and wild pangolins. Then there was the idea that workers in a lab studying bat viruses might have accidentally become infected and unknowingly spread the virus to others.
Rather than rule out the accidental lab leak hypothesis, Quammen takes readers step by step through the genetic and epidemiological data. That includes recent evidence supporting the scenario that the virus emerged: maybe in two separate hops – From a unknown animal in 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 take on new traits. Quammen’s conclusion: An accidental lab leak is not impossible. “But it seems unlikely.”
To understand the pandemic, Quammen draws on the lessons learned from our previous encounters with coronavirus, including the SARS outbreak and the 2012 MERS outbreak in the Middle East (SN: 12/28/13, pg. 23). Part of his 2012 book Leak focused on the bat origin of the SARS outbreak (SN: 10/20/12, p. 30). That tome is eerily prophetic. If the original SARS coronavirus had been more contagious before symptoms began, Quammen wrote in Leakofficials would have found it much more difficult to end the outbreak. “It would be a much darker story,” he wrote. But that is exactly what happened with SARS-CoV-2. People can spread the virus to others before they know they are sick, a trait that helped get COVID-19 out of control.
As a science journalist who has followed SARS-CoV-2 since its discovery, I discovered Panting be surprisingly cathartic. My memories of the last few years have faded. Panting presents the sweeping scientific story of the pandemic, connecting puzzle pieces that had felt so out of place at the time.
Some readers may feel that it is too early to scrutinize a pandemic that is not even over. But SARS-CoV-2 will certainly not be the last harmful virus to emerge. Quammen puts the pandemic in the context of coronavirus scares that have come before it to highlight how the science builds on itself. And one thing is certain: there will be another. “There are many more fearsome viruses where SARS-CoV-2 came from,” she writes, “wherever it is.”
To buy Panting from Bookshop.org. science news is a Bookshop.org affiliate and will earn commission on purchases made from links in this article.