Back in March 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic first swept around the world, I reviewed David Quammen’s 2012 book Spillover for background reading. It looked at the risk of zoonosis: the spilling over of an infectious disease from animal into human populations. Quammen warned, and gave voice to many others who similarly warned, that the next big disease outbreak might very well be viral, in particular RNA viruses such as coronaviruses. Other authors quickly wrote books within the first year of the pandemic (I reviewed some of them), but not yet Quammen: “early in 2021 I decided to keep quiet for a while and listen” (p. 282). Finally, in October 2022, his book Breathless provided us with his insights into COVID-19 and the virus SARS-CoV-2.
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.
Books can be like buses: nothing is written on a topic for ages and then two books appear in quick succession. The subtitle of Life as We Made It resembles that of the recently-reviewed Life Changing. Both books indeed cover the same topic: how humans have shaped the genetics and evolution of plants and animals around them. Despite some inevitable overlap, Beth Shapiro draws on two decades of her career as a geneticist to make Life as We Made It a beast all of its own. I found myself both thoroughly enjoying her fantastic science communication while disagreeing with her outlook.
The word biology derives from the Greek words bíos (βίος in Greek), meaning “life”, and -logía (-λογία in Greek), meaning “branch of study”, and is usually defined as “the study of life”. But what is life? Remarkably, biologists cannot agree on a definition. Everyone can name clear examples of living and non-living things. However, as so often in biology, there is no sharp demarcation between the two. There is a grey area where things are, well, somewhat alive? Lifelike? It is these borderlands between life and non-life that famous science writer and journalist Carl Zimmer explores in Life’s Edge. Instead of providing an answer, this intellectually stimulating and rewarding book will help you understand why it is such a hard question to begin with.
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.