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#WavellReviews “Viral: The Search for the Origins of COVID-19” by Alina Chan and Matt Ridley

Available here from Fourth Estate

Unless you lived through the Second World War, the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to be the most globally significant event you live through.  That is of course, if you live through it, noting it has now, as of January 2022, been linked to over 5.5 million deaths.  With the emergence of the Omicron variant, it is clear that humankind is still brawling with this virus.  Our ability to vaccinate is being tested by new variants and, whilst the end has often been reported to be in-sight, it is not clear when we will be able to retrospectively reflect on the most significant event of the 21st Century.

COVID-19 would make a brilliant plot line for a movie.  Espionage, novel viruses, scientific brilliance and potentially foolishness, vaccine diplomacy and, of course, who can forget the first time they were introduced to pangolins and civets.  All framed within a geopolitical landscape of hostility, contempt and mistrust.  It is of course not a plot line, but something that we have all lived through for 2 years.  And, because of this, I think we can all be forgiven for not wanting to spend any more of our time reading about the virus that has impacted us so much.  That being said, at some point we will want to understand why it happened – either for understanding or blame –  and how we can avoid it in the future.

This book, written by Dr Alina Chan a genetic engineering expert, and Matt Ridley a former businessman, banker, Member of the House of Lords and now a well-known tweeter and scientific writer, is aimed at the lay person – which, let’s be honest, is probably 99% of the population.  If you don’t know your ‘furin cleavage’ from your ‘gain-of-function’ – this book is aimed at your level.  Whilst the book’s prose inevitably, due to the nature of the subject, drifts into scientific language with seemingly random letters and numbers employed, it is thoroughly explained, and there is nothing that a quick re-read doesn’t clear up for the reader.

For me, the book had two key outputs; firstly a thorough explanation of the terminology.  What the SARS-CoV-2 virus is and what it isn’t, and how it relates to the other viruses and disease we have heard of.  Secondly, what the world has done to combat these viruses and where the COVID-19 pandemic could have started.

It includes almost all of the well-known theories – both scientific and conspiracy – including the ‘wet-market’, the ‘natural origin’ and, the golden thread of the book, the ‘lab-leak’ theory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.  This is where the book offers most value for the reader as it stiches together the numerous events, activities and narratives into a coherent and chronological story.  It is easy to forget just how many twists and turns the COVID-19 story has had, and the book serves as an excellent reminder and refresher of this.  It is a compelling read, the mixture of deep scientific research mixed with the finds of online sleuths.  Additionally, the narratives (be they Chinese, US, the wider West or the World Health organisation) are interrogated and expanded upon.

Both authors try very hard to offer a balanced view on events.  This is almost impossible to achieve and will be entirely dependent on the readers thoughts and background.  As the book mentions, the only fact in this story is that a novel coronavirus gained traction within the Hubei Province of China, infecting thousands locally, and millions globally.  Everything else is an assessment and viewpoint, and will thus fall foul of narratives, counter narratives and opinion.  It is very clear that this book is updating the reader on a fascinating and wide ranging story, where the outcome is unknown and new evidence could potentially undermine everything we known to date.

The book concludes with a note of caution and concern.  Has humankind, in its efforts to understand and prepare humanity against novel and dangerous viruses, accidentally released one of the most damaging viruses ever known?  This book won’t age well.  Not because of the quality of the evidence or the analysis – both are excellent – but rather that the COVID-19 story is unrelenting.  For example, this book doesn’t even cover the Omicron variant, such is the pace of changing events.  Therefore if you are going to read this book, and I highly recommended that you do, it is almost certainly one to read in the coming months as we, hopefully, emerge truly into a post-COVID-19 world.

James Burton

Nom de plume. Fanboy of the real James Burton, author of the Pentagon Wars: Reformers Challenge the Old Guard - played by Cary Elwes in HBO's 1998 production The Pentagon Wars. 

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