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Ruth’s Reviews: The Viral Storm

Ruth Francis, Nature’s head of press, is reading the shortlist of the Royal Society Winton prize for science books at a rate of one a week. She’s done it before. Will she succeed this year? The winner of the prize will be announced on 26 November.

Its opening passage describes an emerging virus in rural Thailand in 2003, the now-notorious avian influenza, H5N1. From here The Viral Storm takes the reader back in time to humankind’s beginnings, and at least twice around the globe, tracking events leading to current conditions, which we learn are perfect for a new pandemic.

Microbes are all around us and have been throughout our history. Some are helpful, others harmful. Over time, our interactions with animals, through hunting and domestication, have allowed some to jump between species. Our world, reduced in size by global travel, creates new routes and greater speeds for bugs. And medicine, helpful as it is, provides transplants, injections and other short cuts for disease agents to develop and spread.

Nathan Wolfe’s captivating read weaves the intertwined tales of viruses and humans as we have co-evolved. His own research has taken him to far-flung regions, and his anecdotes provide accessible entry points to often complex biology. He introduces his global network of colleagues with warmth and respect and observes their research with interest.

Considering the subject, this is a calm, clear and non-hysterical read. We feel confident in the hands of Wolfe and his collaborators; although it is clear there is a lot that is unknown as they continue their search for unknown threats.

Reading the majority of this aboard a plane, I couldn’t help but contemplate the world around me with a different perspective. Things we take for granted offer benefits to these opportunists. Wolfe himself says that he is often asked how he mitigates his own risk of infection, and his advice did not fall on deaf ears.

The closing predicts an optimistic future, however, with geeks tracking data, using global networks and new technology to try to stay a step ahead in this potentially deadly game. We should be doing a better job, he says, but Wolfe is hopeful that we will someday be capable of catching pandemics and stopping them before they take hold.

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