Inside the viral world

Topics BOOK REVIEW | Literature

Infectious: Pathogens and How We Fight Them Author: John S Tregoning Publisher: Simon & Schuster Pages: 374 Price: Rs 699 John S Tregoning begins his book Infectious: Pathogens and How We Fight Them with the bald statement: “Nature wants you dead.” Don’t let this dire sentence deter you because you’re about to read one of the most wickedly funny books you’ll ever read on viruses. Explaining scientific facts lucidly, almost in a conversational tone, Dr Tregoning, who is a reader in respiratory infections at Imperial College London, notes.....
Infectious: Pathogens and How We Fight Them
Author: John S Tregoning
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Pages: 374
Price: Rs 699

John S Tregoning begins his book Infectious: Pathogens and How We Fight Them with the bald statement: “Nature wants you dead.” Don’t let this dire sentence deter you because you’re about to read one of the most wickedly funny books you’ll ever read on viruses.

Explaining scientific facts lucidly, almost in a conversational tone, Dr Tregoning, who is a reader in respiratory infections at Imperial College London, notes that though coronaviruses were discovered in 1966, only 6,982 research papers were published on them until January 2020. After which, he says, taking a jibe at researchers, everyone, including their dog, is an expert on them.

Compared with previous pandemics, however, the spread of Covid-19 has been effectively tackled. 

Dr Tregoning writes that SARS-CoV-2’s gene sequence was published on January 10, 2020, “fifty-four days after the first recorded case. Sixty-three days later, on 13 March 2020, researchers from Moderna injected the first doses of a human vaccine. Sixty-three days.  The word unprecedented gets thrown around a lot, but this is an unbelievable medical breakthrough.”

It is also interesting to note how simple mathematical models — such as SIR (Susceptible, Infected, Recovered) — are used to explain or assess the spread of disease. Such a model was built by military physician Anderson Gray McKendrick, who was studying bacterial growth in India, in 1927. But Dr Tregoning thinks Covid-19 may be (or is) showing signs of a SIRS (Susceptible, Infected, Recovered, Susceptible) type of spread. He also says that there’s a three-pronged reason for this: “Severity, speed of spread, and scientific progress,” which is why the world was locked down because of SARS-CoV-2 and not any other fatal pathogen.

Last month I read Pranay Lal’s Invisible Empire: The Natural History of Viruses, and I can’t help but compare these two marvellous books. Both of them, written in accessible English, full of anecdotes, with counter-intuitive narrative flow, are bound to pique interest in popular science.

Whereas Mr Lal focuses on history, Dr Tregoning’s areas of study are immunology and virology; however, they both observe the same three findings: (1) Viruses and our existence go hand in hand; (2) We don’t know enough about viruses; and (3) We have to be ready for the next pandemic.

Beyond these commonalities, Dr Tregoning also discusses how viruses were named after the geographical location of their origin—a practice that was stopped “due to the stigma attached (which is why SARS-CoV-2 took three months to be named and wasn’t called Wuhan virus).” However, leaders like Donald Trump would still use such language.

Though most of us would never like to thank Covid-19 for anything, Dr Tregoning points out that it has played an instrumental role in providing a “handy primer on misinformation, critical thinking and how the interface of infection with society means scientists need to deliver their messages in a clear, unambiguous way to save lives.”

It has exposed several dogmas too, he argues —for instance, how “cultural attitudes determine mask usage.” So, if you’re irritated at seeing people roaming around unmasked, unafraid of the invisible enemy, then do take note that there was an association that was formed in San Francisco in 1918 “in response to an ordinance requiring people living in the city to wear masks.” 

Dr Tregoning shares that “similar protests, encouraged by the internet, took place in 2020, predominantly fuelled by civil liberty concerns, internet bilge, and mixed messages from some politicians.”

One more reason Dr Tregoning’s book is a must-read is that, unlike people who do not understand that business decisions have a role to play in the marketing of vaccines, he explains the rationale for the high price of vaccines and the patenting approach of companies matter-of-factly. He also shares how some of the drug companies come to monopolise the markets, pointing out, without missing a beat, that most drug discoveries are pure luck.

It may be the case that no one knows whether a vaccine will work or not, but it is definitely a conscious choice on the part of the author and the editor to make sexist and offensive statements. I cite two from this book. Describing how “just four letters” (the four types of bases in a DNA molecule) can make up life, Dr Tregoning explains it’s “a bit like computers turning a string of zeros and ones into pictures of Kim Kardashian’s bottom.” If this was not enough, he also says that immunity supplements “smell like Gwyneth Paltrow’s vagina.” Reading these “jokes,” I’m unsure when a longer running pandemic whose causative agents are white skin and male privilege will end.


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