'Breathless' investigates the origins of COVID-19 and other pandemic science.

The book delves into the contentious issue of whether the virus evolved in nature or in the laboratory.

A new pandemic book focuses on the science of SARS-CoV-2 (green in this false-color image of an infected olfactory epithelial cell).  NIAID/FLICKR (CC BY 2.0) (CC BY 2.0)
A new pandemic book focuses on the science of SARS-CoV-2 (green in this false-color image of an infected olfactory epithelial cell).  NIAID/FLICKR (CC BY 2.0) (CC BY 2.0)

COVID-19 was lethal and disruptive when it arrived on the global stage in 2020. Researchers discovered the cause in the first few weeks of January: A coronavirus, a relative of the virus that caused the 2003 SARS outbreak, was to blame. Echoes of what had happened nearly 20 years before — thousands of people were infected and at least 774 died before the SARS outbreak was brought under control — sent tremors through the virology community.

Scientists from all disciplines rushed to learn more about the new scourge, dubbed SARS-CoV-2. Hospitals around the world were quickly overwhelmed, and billions of people's daily lives were thrown into disarray. Quarantine, isolation, N95 masks, and social distancing have all entered our lexicon. Breathless, written by science writer David Quammen, takes readers on a two-year scientific roller coaster.

The book is a portrait of the virus, including SARS-early CoV-2's days in China, how decades of science enabled researchers to develop effective vaccines in less than a year, and the arrival of highly mutated variants. It has nothing to do with societal upheaval or public health failures (and successes). While Quammen recognizes the significance of those aspects of the pandemic, he prefers to focus on the "firehose" of scientific studies — both good and bad — that fueled our understanding of COVID-19.

He delves into one of the pandemic's most contentious issues: where did SARS-CoV-2 come from. Nature or the laboratory? Quammen goes into great detail about the saga. Initially, there were concerns that some of the virus's features had been engineered. Concerns were quickly dispelled when researchers discovered those characteristics in viruses from wild bats and pangolins. Then there was the possibility that workers in a lab studying bat viruses had become infected accidentally and unknowingly spread the virus to others.

Rather than dismissing the accidental lab leak theory, Quammen walks readers through the genetic and epidemiological data. This includes new evidence that the virus emerged – possibly in two separate jumps – from an unknown animal at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, China. 

Readers will learn the nuances of how virologists conduct research and the controversies surrounding gain-of-function studies that test what happens when viruses acquire new traits from his conversations with experts in virus ecology and evolution. Quammen's conclusion: An unintentional laboratory leak is not impossible. "However, it appears unlikely."

Quammen draws on lessons learned from previous encounters with coronaviruses, such as the SARS outbreak and the 2012 MERS outbreak in the Middle East, to better understand the pandemic (SN: 12/28/13, p. 23). 

Spillover, his 2012 book, was partly about the bat origins of the SARS outbreak (SN: 10/20/12, p. 30). That book is frighteningly prescient. If the original SARS coronavirus had been most contagious before symptoms appeared, officials would have had a much more difficult time containing the outbreak, according to Quammen in Spillover. He wrote, "It would be a much darker story." However, this is exactly what happened with SARS-CoV-2. People can spread the virus to others before they realize they are sick, which aided COVID-19's spread.

Breathless was surprisingly cathartic for me as a science journalist who has been following SARS-CoV-2 since its discovery. My memories from the last few years have become jumbled. Breathless tells the sweeping scientific story of the pandemic, connecting puzzle pieces that seemed out of place at the time.

Some readers may believe it is premature to examine a pandemic that hasn't even ended. However, SARS-CoV-2 will not be the last dangerous virus to emerge. Quammen situates the pandemic within the context of previous coronavirus scares to demonstrate how science builds on itself. And one thing is certain: another will follow. "Wherever SARS-CoV-2 came from," he writes, "there are many more fearsome viruses."


M. Worobey and colleagues The COVID-19 pandemic began at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan. 10.1126/science.abp8715. Science, Vol. 377, July 26, 2022, p. 951.

The molecular epidemiology of multiple zoonotic origins of SARS-CoV-2, J.E. Pekar et al. Science, Vol. 377, July 26, 2022, p. 960. doi: 10.1126/science.abp8337.


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