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Viral: The Search for the Origin of COVID-19 Hardcover – November 16, 2021
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"Chan and Ridley's new book is a viral whodunnit that is sure to appeal to armchair detectives." (The Guardian)
A new virus descended on the human species in 2019 wreaking unprecedented havoc. Finding out where it came from and how it first jumped into people is an urgent priority, but early expectations that this would prove an easy question to answer have been dashed. Nearly two years into the pandemic, the crucial mystery of the origin of SARS-CoV-2 is not only unresolved but has deepened.
In this uniquely insightful book, a scientist and a writer join forces to try to get to the bottom of how a virus whose closest relations live in bats in subtropical southern China somehow managed to begin spreading among people more than 1,500 kilometres away in the city of Wuhan. They grapple with the baffling fact that the virus left none of the expected traces that such outbreaks usually create: no infected market animals or wildlife, no chains of early cases in travellers to the city, no smouldering epidemic in a rural area, no rapid adaptation of the virus to its new host—human beings.
To try to solve this pressing mystery, Viral delves deep into the events of 2019 leading up to 2021, the details of what went on in animal markets and virology laboratories, the records and data hidden from sight within archived Chinese theses and websites, and the clues that can be coaxed from the very text of the virus’s own genetic code.
The result is a gripping detective story that takes the reader deeper and deeper into a metaphorical cave of mystery. One by one the authors explore promising tunnels only to show that they are blind alleys, until, miles beneath the surface, they find themselves tantalisingly close to a shaft that leads to the light.
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“Both journalists and armchair detectives interested in the mystery of the coronavirus were discovering Chan as a kind of Holmes to our Watson. She crunched information at twice our speed, zeroing in on small details we’d overlooked, and became a go-to for anyone looking for spin-free explications of the latest science on COVID-19.” -- Boston Globe Magazine
"Viral collates a series of circumstantial but damning points in favour of the lab-leak hypothesis." -- Sunday Times (London)
About the Author
Matt Ridley is the author of books that have sold well over a million copies in 32 languages: THE RED QUEEN, THE ORIGINS OF VIRTUE, GENOME, NATURE VIA NURTURE, FRANCIS CRICK, THE RATIONAL OPTIMIST, THE EVOLUTION OF EVERYTHING, and HOW INNOVATION WORKS. In his bestseller GENOME and in his biography of Francis Crick, he showed an ability to translate the details of genomic discoveries into understandable and exciting stories. During the current pandemic, he has written essays for the Wall Street Journal and The Spectator about the origin and genomics of the virus. His most recent WSJ piece appeared on January 16, 2021. He is a member of the House of Lords in the UK.
Dr. Alina Chan is a postdoctoral researcher with a background in medical genetics, synthetic biology, and vector engineering. At the Broad Institute of MIT & Harvard, Dr. Chan is currently creating next generation vectors for human gene therapy. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Chan began to investigate problems relevant to finding the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and in parallel spearheaded the development of the COVID-19 CoV Genetics (covidcg.org) browser for scientists worldwide to rapidly track virus lineages and mutations by locations and date ranges of interest.
- Publisher : Harper (November 16, 2021)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 416 pages
- ISBN-10 : 006313912X
- ISBN-13 : 978-0063139121
- Item Weight : 1.25 pounds
- Dimensions : 6 x 1.29 x 9 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #4,110 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
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Top reviews from the United States
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I tracked the news for a couple of days after the release of this book, expecting a widely publicized counterattack from those endeavoring to suppress the lab leak theory, to shortly follow release of this book. It was not surprising within a day or so to see the NYT, the Washington Post, and the LA Times all headlining the story of a supposed “leading scientist” (with apparently no degrees really relating to virology), who from far afar was supposedly able to rehash information including probable propaganda, and opine that the Wuhan Market was most certainly the origin of the virus.
Glad to spend a modest amount of money on this book and the Markson book, supporting real courage in the face of cowardice and contrived blindness. Both books are great reads.
I humbly give this pre-amble to note that I have more context around the events taking place in China in the early days of the outbreak than your average MAGA-hat wearing American. Like most folks, early on given the precedent of SARS-classic I favored the wet-market theory. Interestingly, though, before COVID blossomed into a global pandemic, Chinese social media and even state-owned outlets were on fire with debate about the role Wuhan labs could have played, and in at least one column from Feb 2020, even the Global Times pressed the Wuhan Institute of Virology to be more transparent. Of course, as COVID took hold globally all of that debate was shut down and the propaganda organs in China pressed hard to drum up nationalism by obfuscating China's role in the origins and passing the blame on Fort Detrick / imported food.
Through all of it, I've been dismayed at how credulous Western Media has been in covering the story and how reluctant investigative reporters and international institutions are to dive deeper and demand answers, no matter how politically inconvenient they may be (even the NIH is requesting 30-years for routing Freedom of Information Act requests). This book helps to close some of those gaps, and rather than relying on tired ad-hominem attacks, I wish critics would post their substantive gripes with the arguments included so that a civil and open debate could take place.
The book weaves together a dense story starting with the mysterious death of several miners in Mojiang County in 2012. In a bat cave in this county several miners came down with pneumonia and significant health deterioration with unknown origins. Speculations included fungal and viral infections but nothing identified as known disease. The authors give some perspective on the subsequent studying of these cases as masters and doctoral dissertations published on these cases but these remained within Chinese databases and were not the subject of international publication. The mine from which this occurred remains completely closed to any investigation and is not willingly discussed by China. The authors and a large number of scientists believe these cases and that cave are the likely origin of Covid. The caves of Yunnan are filled with species of bats which are the most abundant source of zoonotic viruses. Their large communities and close proximity of living leads to large virus pools that are not suited to humans or other animals but are potentially a few mutations away from being able to jump species. The authors discuss how the study of such bat populations and their viruses was the business of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, run by Dr Shi. A prominent character in the story of Covid. Their team analyzed bat viruses for years and sequenced their findings (though did not share their results and then only partially until internet sleuths found evidence of their existence on the internet). Thus the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) studied and analyzed bat genomes with coronavirus structures for years. Furthermore the institute along with general scientific momentum likely engaged in gain of function research on viruses with the ambition of getting ahead of the next pandemic by putting oneself in the position to understand viral evolution better. This sort of scientific attitude is controversial with both advocates and skeptics able to make strong cases. It is hard to imagine in a country like China their ambitions don't completely dominate any interest in ethics, but of course this is speculative.
The author spend time highlighting how lab leaks happen, giving examples in the Soviet Union as well as the US. They also discuss the level of biosafety labs that have been constructed and the safety protocols around research type and lab type. In this the author's highlight that the safety standards of Chinese labs is questionable, as they often dismissed their western peers who helped build the labs leaving a scarcity of lab technicians trained to use such highly specified equipment. A topic Chinese scientists no doubt would instinctually disagree with, but the examples given are highly concerning though there is no one given the opportunity to rebut them. The authors discuss the level of security in the WIV and its capacity to work on both genome analysis and gain of function research.
The authors spend time giving the reader and understanding of the peculiarities of COVID. The most obvious is that a virus which jumps species is extremely unlikely to be highly infectious. The binding receptors for humans and the original animal host will be different requiring mutations, thus usual first cases are people in extremely close proximity to animals often catch but don't transmit. In the case of COVID its original mutations were few meaning the virus was immediately suited for human transmission. The tracing of the chain of infections led to at best the fish section of the wet-market, which was originally given as the origin. This should now considered to be of negligible probability. The second story pushed by Chinese officials is it was transmitted in frozen food, this too has negligible probability as a scenario and there is no evidence for it either. The authors discuss pangolins and civet cats and how they are vessels for bat viruses rather than a source of virus. So one also gets decent biology lessons throughout. There is a discussion of how the spike protein is so effective and how it is unique to COVID indicating some chance of engineering. This of course would be highly disputed by Chinese policy makers but that is purely their self interest being displayed loudly rather than substantiated with evidence.
The authors weave throughout the story the reality of Chinese authorities and Dr Shi's team not being cooperative. There was late release of genome data, non-existent record keeping of early patient data. Non-sense privacy arguments on sidelining blood analysis of patients in Wuhan in 2019. Overall its pretty shocking how little China has been willingly providing on the origins of Covid but then not so shocking when considering their initial desire to cover up the outbreak. There are so many extremely strange instances of, very close but prior to the outbreak genome data being taken offline and or renamed. Of course there's an excuse for everything but the collage of evidence points to a lack of transparency that projects guilt, whether or not such is the case. If anything confidence on the China narrative on the origin of Covid is now deservedly low, while confidence in the case for a lab leak, accidental as it would have been has risen.
Viral is exciting and a dense collection of evidence on the origins of COVID. It attempts to be even in its analysis giving arguments for each side and claiming at the end the authors have yet to form their own conclusions but the writing suggests otherwise. It suggests the authors believe the evidence is stacked towards a lab leak, but an unintentional one. As a reader one will come to the same conclusion but of course that is partially due to the authors putting together the evidence the way they do and not having the other side respond. That being said scientists on the other side, who really are pursuing science and not agents of the state, like Dr Shi, have refused to respond to their questions forcing the reader to come to the same conclusions as the facts the authors put together take one to inescapable. Unfortunately this is increasingly an instance where China's closed autocratic political instincts don't sit well with the scientists investigating the topic. And whether its instincts that are counterproductive or whether its their need to cover up a mistake has amplified a growth in mistrust that wont just go away. Nor has it led to a stronger introspection for all scientific research done in the name of getting ahead of a problem ignoring the probability of creating a problem, namely gain of function research, were it actually a lab leak. It will take the world a long time to get over this pandemic and the exercise of getting to the bottom of the origin of it at the moment is more anti-cathartic than anything.
Top reviews from other countries
There is reluctance amongst scientists and book reviewers, understandable perhaps, given the political sensibilities and sheer volume of dubious analysis which now surrounds every contentious issue, to commit to any conclusion unless its veracity can be proved beyond reasonable doubt. In the real world, where the health and safety of millions continues to be at risk, this has rarely proved a rational approach. By the time the jury returns, the chance of effective action is usually long gone.
Anybody who has closely followed the search for the origin of the initial outbreak in Wuhan has seen the accumulation, month by month, of more and more information regarding the discovery and manipulation of viruses mostly closely resembling Covid-19. The book deals with this in considerably greater breadth and detail than other publications, which can make it demanding reading. Much of the information has accumulated so recently that the some of the burden of digesting and weighing its significance is inevitably left to the reader.
Given the reliance of many scientists current views on the history of past ‘spillover’ outbreaks arising from direct human contact with animal reservoirs of pathogens, the authors analyse and document the puzzling lack of evidence to support it in this case. This evidence may, of course, appear in the future but it may equally be that the nature of this first human contact did not follow the historical script. They document how, in recent years, for the first time, labs all over the world have been collecting thousands of viruses, many of them highly pathogenic, and growing, selecting and modifying them to assess their risk to humankind.
I have a background in molecular biology and, for me, the book makes a convincing case that pandemic probably arose as a result of an infection contracted from material held in one or other of the research laboratories in Wuhan. I, and the authors, may of course be wrong. The clear warning of this book, nevertheless, is that if we do not act to deal with the complacent and dangerous approach currently taken worldwide in investigating and manipulating viral pathogens, we will see the same thing happen agin.
Excellent account and research this is what we have been waiting for We need to know the truth to protect our future. Great read.