Monday, May 21, 2012

Viral Storm

Book Review : The Viral Storm
Author : Nathan Wolfe
My Rating : 3 out of 5

The complete title of the book is "The Viral Storm: The Dawn of a New Pandemic Age".

I came to know about this book from "The Colbert Report" when the author Nathan Wolfe was interviewed. He boasts an impressive resume. He was previously a tenured professor at UCLA, now he is a professor at Stanford, has published numerous papers with many years of field research in remote parts of the world. He is more than qualified to write a book on this topic.

The world of microbes is fascinating but largely ignored by anyone who is not in medical field. There aren't as many PBS Nature shows on them as there are on other species. We talk about them only when there is an outbreak. But for Nathan Wolfe, this microscopic world has been a lifelong obsession. He started out as a researcher, and now heads the unique efforts of a not-for-profit organization called Global Viral Forecasting Initiative.

The idea behind such an organization is very interesting and is explained at the very end of the book - how to predict (and prevent) future outbreaks. Their tool-set is diverse and innovative. It even includes analyzing Google search patterns and trending topics on Twitter. But what is a pandemic ? How does it start ? How does it spread ?

Nathan Wolfe argues that understanding these questions is important because it's almost certain that there will be new pandemics and new lethal viruses. To explain that, he starts from the very beginning, at the dawn of human evolution, when our primate ancestors ventured out of the forest into the savannah. The microbes have been evolving with us, and continue to evolve like any other life form.

For any virus that wants to affect as many hosts as possible, there should be means to spread. We are not just a super connected world with fast means of mass transportation. As the author puts it, we are also an "intimately connected" world, where blood transfusion and organ implants give new avenues for the viruses to spread.

There are many such insights in the book. Now I know, this cannot be a relaxing discussion. So the author tries hard to be an optimist and not an alarmist. He obviously is passionate about the topic and is at the forefront of preventive efforts. That passion comes through.

But it's not as satisfying as I hoped it would be. Often times it feels like a book about "who's who" of the "virus hunters", and less about explaining scientific ideas to outsiders. The researchers deserve credit, but it would be nice to learn more about the topic they are researching. Hence, it feels like written by an executive and less by a scientist. I wish he had spent more of the pages on explaining more about the biology concepts related to the discussion. If advanced topics in math and physics can be explained to laymen, I am pretty sure it's possible for biology as well.

I can still recommend it, because it's a worthwhile reading about a field we rarely hear about.

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