Footnotes: The Viral Storm by Nathan D. Wolfe

Coronavirus is spreading, sparking fear and panic across the world. In this book, 'Virus Hunter' Nathan Wolfe explains how global pandemics work, and what we must do to stop them.


What's the book?

Nathan Wolfe is the world’s most prominent ‘virus hunter’ – a sort of Indiana Jones of the world of virology who travels from dense African jungles to state of the art, climate-controlled laboratories in hot pursuit of the world’s most-deadly viruses. His mission: to understand how they jump from animals to humans, and if it’s possible to kill them before they wipe us out. The bad news? A global pandemic has never been a greater threat to us than it is right now. But don't panic yet.

The story of the virus is the story of the ever-increasing intimacy between animals and humans. It started some eight million years ago when the common ancestor we share with chimpanzees developed a taste for monkey meat. In short DNA mixed, and alien monkey-viruses mutated. By the early 20th century, boosted by the domestication of livestock, they had jumped to humans.

Now, there are many dozens of dangerous new viruses that have passed from animals to humans (called zoonoses), from Ebola to bird flu, SARS to HIV. And thanks to cars, boats, planes and trains, the whole world has become a single microbial incubator, says Wolfe: ‘This radically mobile world gives infectious agents ... a truly global stage on which to act.'

But despite all this, Wolfe remains an optimist. He presents a surprisingly upbeat tone when it comes to how far we have come in understanding viruses and the weapons we’ve developed to defeat them. Technology, he says, is the key, as we close in on the ultimate objective of a ‘global immune system’ for forecasting and preventing pandemics.

Why talk about it now?

In just a couple of months, the coronavirus outbreak has snowballed from a handful of cases to more than 40,000 (at the time of writing), reaching four continents and sparking an all-out battle to stop the spread across China and beyond. The Viral Storm is the perfect companion to anyone who wants to better understand what this means, and what we’re up against. 



Between April 2001 and August 2002, a period that included the 9/11 attacks, 8,000 people died at the hands of terrorists around the world. Between April 2009 and August 2012, the virus H5N1 (avian flu) killed 18,000 people. Furthermore, in just two months in 2020, coronavirus has killed more than 1,000. Wolfe argues: shouldn't we be spending at least as much on preventing pandemics as we do on tackling terrorism?

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