7-minute read keywords: immunology, popular science
Our lives depend on a functioning immune system, but few of us understand how it works. And fewer still can explain it because, to quote Ed Yong: “immunology is where intuition goes to die“. Thus, Philip Dettmer, the creator of the wildly successful popular science YouTube channel Kurzegsagt, has written this chunky book. An entertaining crash course in immunobiology, it does a wonderful job at introducing all the moving parts that make up this byzantine system.
From the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus has been one of the big questions. The default assumption for many has been zoonosis: a natural spillover event where an infectious disease jumps from an animal host into the human population. But could it have escaped from one of the several virology laboratories in Wuhan? Initially cast aside as a conspiracy theory, the idea has slowly been gaining credibility. Viral is a disconcerting book that considers what we know so far. Though the smoking gun remains missing, the circumstantial evidence raises several red flags. Given the increasingly heated and polarised discussion around this topic, I started reviewing this book with some trepidation.
It might sound crass to write that the COVID-19 pandemic is just the latest in a long line of infectious disease outbreaks, but a little perspective helps. Historian Kyle Harper previously impressed me with his study on the role of climate and disease in the decline of the Roman Empire. In Plagues Upon the Earth, he offers a global, multidisciplinary environmental history of infectious disease, showing that it is a force that has both shaped and been shaped by human history. This magnificent book stood out as much for its nuance and academic rigour as it did for its readability.
So far, most of the books I have read on the COVID-19 pandemic have either been of the backwards-looking, how-did-we-get-here type, or have dealt with practical virological, epidemiological, or immunological details. I picked up Apollo’s Arrow as it promised a forward-looking perspective while drawing parallels with past pandemics. Nicholas A. Christakis, a physician and sociologist directing the Human Nature Lab in Yale, got drafted into working on the pandemic from the start, tracking the spread of the virus, and sat at the bedside of many dying patients while working as a hospice doctor in New York. I believe we need to hear these frontline stories.
A pandemic is probably a good moment to understand how vaccines are developed and how they work. This short and educational primer offers relevant background information on viruses and the immune system, and goes into much more detail on vaccines than other recent introductory books. How to Make a Vaccine is written by immunologist John Rhodes who brings to the table both his background in academic research on vaccines and his experience working for GlaxoSmithKline from 2001 to 2007. His narrative approach of choice is to tell the story of viruses, immunology, and vaccines through the history of scientific discovery.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, many publishers have seen an opportunity to reissue previously published books on viruses and pandemics. As a reader, it is always difficult to know whether you are actually getting any updated content beyond the obligatory new preface or afterword, or whether this is just a quick cash-grab. Fortunately, the third edition of Carl Zimmer’s famous virology primer A Planet of Viruses is here to prove those suspicions wrong.
Last year August, science writer Ed Yong put it very nicely: “you see, the immune system is very complicated“. Yet, understanding it is important to understanding how the COVID-19 pandemic might evolve, why we are faced with certain public health measures, and how we can hope to combat the pandemic with tests and vaccines. In this brief book, physics and chemistry professor Arup K. Chakraborty and immunologist Andrey S. Shaw offer a general introduction to how our immune system reacts to viruses, and how our medical inventions help out.
Out of the first crop of books relating to the coronavirus pandemic, this one seemed especially relevant. Author Richard Horton is the editor of the leading medical journal The Lancet which has been an important publication outlet for new research results on both the virus SARS-CoV-2 and the disease COVID-19. Having also served at the World Health Organization (WHO), Horton thus has had an insider’s view of the pandemic and here brings a sharp critique to bear on the sluggish political response in Europe and the US.
Saying that the COVID-19 pandemic should not have happened will likely elicit one of two responses. Blaming China for initially trying to cover it up, or saying: “shit happens, this is speaking with the benefit of hindsight”. Appealing as these may sound, they are missing the bigger picture. The awful truth is that we have had this one coming for a long time.
With the COVID-19 pandemic shaping up to be one of the most influential public health crises in living memory, it was only a matter of time before books would be written about it. One of the first to make it to press is Understanding Coronavirus by systems biologist and bioinformatician Raul Rabadan. Amidst the swirl of dubious and outright false information that is circulating, there is desperate need for a book that clears up misconceptions and gives a concise introduction to what we know about the virus so far. Given that he spearheaded research in 2009 that confirmed the animal origin of swine flu, Rabadan seems like the right man for the job. Is this the primer that everybody should have on their bedside table?