On October 4, 2022, Simon & Schuster published Breathless: The Scientific Race to Defeat a Deadly Virus, my seventeenth book. On the same day, by happy coincidence, I learned that the book had been named one of five finalists for the National Book Award in Nonfiction. The winners were announced at a gala NBA event in New York on November 16, 2022, which my wife Betsy and I attended. My book didn’t win (that honor went to Imani Perry, well-deserved for her book South to America) but Betsy and I had a fine evening, and much enjoyed spending time with some of the other nominees, such as Robert Samuels and Toluse Olorunnipa (co-authors of His Name Is George Floyd), Meghan O’Rourke (The Invisible Kingdom) and her husband, the writer James Surowiecki, and the poet Roger Reeves (Best Barbarian). Next day I took my tux back to the rental shop. And then Betsy and I flew to Italy for ten days, mostly devoted to book-tour activities in support of Breathless (Senza Respiro in the Italian edition, published by my wonderful Italian publisher Adelphi) over there.
Breathless is a story of the virus that has caused the COVID-19 pandemic—its origin, its evolution, its fierce journey through the human population. That virus is known as SARS-CoV-2. But this book is about people, not just about a virus. My main human characters are scientists, around the world, who have studied the virus, in a breathless effort to understand where it has come from, where it is going, and how we might cope with it to minimize misery and death. The book is a narrative of science in action, not a diatribe. It attempts to illuminate, among other things, the reality that science is a human process—a set of methods and principles and goals, not a body of facts—that moves by provisional steps toward clearer understanding of the physical world, including viral ecology and evolution.
Simon & Schuster asked me, in spring of 2020, to write a book about this pandemic, partly because I had a running start. I’ve been following the subject of dangerous viruses for about twenty years. Ten years ago, my book Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic described the principles and the history of zoonotic diseases—that is, animal infections that get into humans—and channeled the wisdom of certain scientific experts, who predicted aspects of the pandemic they foresaw. That coming pandemic would be caused by a new virus, passed to humans from wildlife. More specifically, it would be caused by a single-stranded RNA virus, because those evolve quickly and have a record of spilling from nonhuman animals into people. Still more specifically, the new scourge might be an influenza virus, or a measles-related virus, or a coronavirus. It could very possibly emerge into humans from wildlife captured and sold live, for food, as done in the wet markets of China that I had seen while researching Spillover.
Because of those predictions, when COVID-19 began, many people asked me: How were you so prescient? I wasn’t prescient, I said. I just listened to the experts.
A dilemma that faced me in 2020, as I began thinking about how to do a book on COVID-19, was that—like most of the rest of the world—I couldn’t travel. I couldn’t go (again) to China and climb (again) through caves filled with bats alongside scientists looking for dangerous viruses. I couldn’t shadow scientists at other field sites, as I usually do, and describe the adventurous, arduous, risky aspects of their work. I couldn’t even visit them in their labs and offices. One of my usual operating principles, as I have written about the sciences of ecology, evolutionary biology, and infectious disease, has been: Go there. Go to the Chinese caves. Go to the Congo forest. Go to the rooftops of Bangladesh, above which giant fruit bats circle at night, carrying nasty pathogens such as Nipah virus. But in this case, I couldn’t go anywhere. So I hit upon an alternate approach.
Beginning in January 2021, I did extended Zoom interviews with ninety-five of the world’s most interesting scientists (and a few public health officials) involved in the study of, and response to, the coronavirus. They ranged from Tony Fauci and George Gao (head of the China CDC at the time) and Eddie Holmes (an eminent molecular evolutionary virologist, whom I knew from Spillover research) and Sharon Peacock (leader of the United Kingdom’s massive effort to sequence genomes of SARS-CoV-2) to brilliant but unknown graduate students, technicians, and young researchers in labs from Edinburgh to Melbourne to Houston. Those interviews took me most of six months, and then I wrote the book during the second half of 2021. I incorporated the latest developments in the virus itself and the science of its dynamics as best I could, up until the point, some months into 2022, when the revising and checking had to be finalized and the book went into production.
From the beginning, my working title was low-key, understated, but (I hoped) ominous, and drawn from the careful terminology that scientists applied to this nefarious bug when it was first detected in people: A Novel Virus. Once it was finished and delivered, the Simon & Schuster team asked me to come up with a different title, something more vivid and urgent. I brainstormed with my editor, the astute and vastly experienced Bob Bender, and with my wife, the astute and vastly imaginative Betsy. We considered and discarded a list of unsatisfactory possibilities. Then, one morning near the deadline, Betsy and I were sitting in my office, giving it one more try. Catching the Virus had been suggested, for its applicability to both the process of infection and the scientific quest to understand and contain SARS-CoV-2. I wasn’t happy with that. Betsy suggested a variant, referring to the societal as well as individual struggles after two years of pandemic: Catching Our Breath. No, I said. But maybe close. And then I thought, simply: Breathless. Everyone embraced it.
Yes, it’s a word that’s been a title before, including for the English release of a very famous French movie (À Bout de Souffle, in the original). But you can’t copyright a title. Some get reused in differing ways. Jean-Paul Belmondo can haunt me if he sees fit.