Saturday, November 04, 2023

Breathless by David Quammen

Breathless by David Quammen is a thorough work of nonfiction subtitled The Scientific Race to Defeat a Deadly Virus. The book jacket notes that it "traces the journey of SARS-CoV-2 through the human population, as seen by the scientists who study its genome, its ever-changing nature, the much-argued question of its origin, and its capacity to kill us." 

Quammen provides a detailed investigation of Covid-19 through his interviews with close to 100 experts and while it can be a heavy read at times, it's a well-done book. He details where the argument for the virus being lab-made came from, and how the evidence shows that to be unlikely. 

It's fascinating reading of how scientists in late December started to hear about patients in Wuhan, most of them having connection to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, with an unknown cause of pneumonia. By January 19, 2020, the Wuhan CDC noted a case count of 198 and were calling the disease a novel-coronavirus-infected pneumonia. At this time, the virus had already spread beyond the country and the thing that scared scientists perhaps the most about the new virus was that people could have and transmit it without showing symptoms themselves. 

It was fascinating reading of the work that went into understanding the novel coronavirus and interesting information about how the virus spreads between both human and animal populations (with spillover occurring when it crosses between them). This makes the virus much more difficult to eradicate, and increases the mutations and variants that occur in it. Quammen notes that transmission to humans likely occurred in the market, from an animal source, and then spread from there with Wuhan a hub for travelers. He also covers how the Chinese government restricted access to information, likely both because restricting access to information is what they do, and from their experience with another coronavirus, SARS-CoV in 2003 that originated in China. Quammen also discusses the fallacy of herd immunity. especially with something that travels between humans and animals, and the rapid development of mRNA covid vaccines. Also noted is Dr. Peter Hotez and the effort to create non-mRNA vaccines, recombinant-protein methodology-built ones that are cheaper, more stable, and can be taken orally or as a nasal squirt.