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DQ Blog

LITTLE THINGS

August 16, 2022

      Here's an interesting fact that you might want to swirl around in your head, along with a sip of the morning coffee: Scientists have now assembled and archived more than 12 million genome sequences of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

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      Each of those sequences is derived from a sample of saliva or other material drawn from an individual patient. Each consists of almost thirty thousand genomic letters in the alphabet of DNA (as translated, for stability during lab work, from the less stable alphabet of the virus’s RNA genome). Together they constitute data points reflecting the evolutionary history of SARS-CoV-2, from its earliest form as detected in Wuhan to its latest variants. Scientists have assembled those data points into a family tree, depicting the divergence and evolution of viral lineages as branches and limbs and twigs. (Actually, there are multiple versions of the tree, differing slightly from one another based on differences in the subset of data used and in the interpretation of ambiguities.) From the details of that family tree and its ongoing growth, disease experts and public health officials draw insights helpful to understanding and containing the spread of the virus. That field of science is called genomic epidemiology.

      Last week I published an Op Ed in The New York Times on this subject:
 https://www.nytimes.com/2022/08/10/opinion/
coronavirus-evolution-vaccines.html

      The Op Ed took about eight days of work, writing and revising, then editing and correcting, with help from a fine editor and a crackerjack fact-checker at the Times. It drew also on my two years of effort toward a new book, Breathless: The Scientific Race to Defeat a Deadly Virus, which will be published by Simon & Schuster on October 4. (See the main post, left of this column.) And that book itself drew on—in addition to 95 interviews with scientists and other experts around the world, during early 2021—my twenty years of intermittently following and writing about the subject of emerging viruses.

      I never foresaw, back in the days when I was a young man writing fiction, or during the decades I worked

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UP FOR AIR

     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

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ENDURING AND REMEMBERING

JANUARY 16, 2021

     Did I say holy goodness? Holy crap. What a year. I've got scant appetite for describing what it's been like for me, because chances are it was worse for you, and I honor that. Difficult for everybody, but my family and most of my friends have been lucky and blessed so far, and for that I'm grateful. Also, for any of those of us who make our living in part from explaining viruses, it 23354 330has been very busy. So busy, I've neglected this blog, saying what I've been able to say in other contexts, journalistic (see the links to the left) and Twitteroid. Now I'm starting to get caught up and perhaps I can resume making the occasional post here, on what I've been learning—by sedulous reading of scientific articles, interviewing scientists, and on the wind—about Covid-19 and the nefariously complex, agile virus that causes it, SARS-CoV-2.

     There are other things that bear commenting on also. My friends Bill Kittredge, Brian Persha, and Barry Lopez all died within recent months, and those losses leave gaps. I will comment on them, as I have opportunity, elsewhere. Barry was like a brother to me, an elder brother—and if that were the case, I guess Peter Matthiessen, gone also these few years, felt like my uncle. I should be so lucky. But when I think of it: If Barry had been my elder brother, I probably could never have become a writer—it would have been too daunting, following in his steps. I would have had to turn aside into one of the only other plausible careers for which I was suited: a circus clown or a herpetologist.

     I miss them, all three.  You should read Bill, read Barry. And if you ever have a chance to lay hold of some of Brian's artistic pottery, do. You'll know it by his profund appreciation of the shades of blue.

     

 

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