January 2, 2022

     WHOOSH: And so a year has passed since I last updated this blog. I have an excuse for the neglect: book deadline. The pandemic began, I set aside one book in progress, and in March 2020 committed to Simon & Schuster for another and more urgent project: a book for them on COVID-19. Problem was: How to write a unique and useful book on a subject about which there would be, I knew, they knew, a hundred books. Ugh. And I usually make it a principle: Write a book on something nobody else is writing a book about. This was different. The situation was unique, and it felt like a responsibility, not an opportunity. So I committed: deliver a Covid book by December 31, 2021. Yike.

     I spent the rest of 2020: 1) thinking about how to do that, while 2) unable to travel to the field, as I usually would for a book, to relelvant locales such as, oh, Wuhan, China, and 3) having double knee-replacement surgery, since why not now, and 4) doing some Covid journalism for The New Yorker and The New York Times. That done, around Christmas last year (late December 2020), I settled on an approach: I would write a book about the virus itself, SARS-CoV-2, this novel bug, and its origins, evolution, and fierce journey through the human population, leaving the medical crisis and the political issues largely to other books; and I would write too about the scientists who study that virus. I would interview, by Zoom, sixty or seventy of the best virologists in the world, if I could get to them, and make them the Greek Chorus of this book I imagined. Their voices, plus the scientific literature, would be my material. I began with an email to Kristian Andersen, a brilliant molecular evolutionary virologist at the Scripps Research Institute, on December 28, 2020: Can we talk? He said yes. Others did too.

     So I interviewed, and in total it came to 94 experts, almost all of them world-class virologists and infectious-disease experts, a few of them public health officials. I asked each for 90 minutes via Zoom and permission to record and quote. Most of the 94 gave me that window of time, a few of them more, and multiple interviews, but some of them, by press of their own work, somewhat less. They ranged from Tony Fauci and George Gao (diretor-general of the China CDC) and Sharon Peacock (head of the COG-UK Consortium, the collaboration of SARS-CoV-2 genome-sequencing bodies in the United Kingdom) and Eddie Holmes (one of the world's leading evolutionary virologists) and Zhengli Shi (famous and much-maligned lead coronavirus researcher at the Wuhan Institute of Virology) to brilliant young grad students (Verity Hill and Ainé O'Toole in Edinburgh, Spyros Lytras in Glasgow, and others) that you haven't heard of. They gave me their time, their thoughts, and their trust. In late June, I started writing, and on December 17, 2021, I hit SEND and the book went to my wonderful editor at Simon & Schuster, Bob Bender. Now we are in the edit-pipeline phase. S&S plan to publish the book, I think, sometime in autumn. The title is BREATHLESS: The Scientific Race to Defeat a Deadly Virus. I'll add some detail when we know more. For now, I merely wanted to break through the ice layer that has frizzed over this ice-fishing hole and come up for air. As you're quite aware, this is an ever-enfolding story. SARS-CoV-2 is not going away, and it will continue to evolve. Our challenge, as its currently preferred host (though mink and tigers and white-tailed deer and gorillas and other creatures are also susceptible), is to evolve with it, or slightly ahead of it, in order to cope. It's a formidable bug . . . or, as Tony Fauci said to me, a "nefarious and insidious" virus. The principles can be found in Darwin, the details in Science and Nature and Virus Evolution.

     If you have lost loved ones or suffered badly otherwise in this pandemic, you have my deep sympathy. It's not over. It's not an accident. It's not a simple story. We can only hope to cope with it if we have good scientific information, and heed it. Be well, and think critically.