Over the years I’ve discovered many a good book thanks to the NPR program Fresh Air. How can you not enjoy a program that for years has been broadcasting interviews with fascinating authors, frequently before they’ve achieved widespread popularity and critical acclaim. Being the nonfiction fan that I am, I appreciate Fresh Air because it’s led me to countless books, including ones about the tortured nation of Zimbabwe, the dark secrets of Pitcairn Island and the adventures of a society devoted to solving unsolved murders. The latest book that I need to thank the good people at Fresh Air for telling me about is Nathan Wolfe’s The Viral Storm: The Dawn of a New Pandemic Age. Published in late 2011, The Viral Storm is not just the story of viruses and how humans have lived with them for millions of years, but also where things could be heading as our species encounters new pathogens resulting from civilization’s ongoing encroachment into the more remote parts of the world, especially in Africa.
Thanks to his extensive field work in such exotic locations (some of it with Guns, Germs and Steel author Jared Diamond) Wolfe has been dubbed the Indiana Jones of virology. In his book, Wolfe shows us how our ancient ancestors were infected by viruses and how it impacted our species and helped shape the course of civilization. According to Wolfe, early in our evolutionary history those ancestors were almost wiped out by a viral epidemic. This created a “genetic bottleneck” that scientists have detected in the echoes of the genetic code and viral inventory of both humans and their closest primate cousins. Ever since then it’s been a history of infection and adaptation. Only with the coming of the modern age have humans found ways to effectively fight such pathogens. But with new virus taking the stage and old ones becoming drug resistant, humanity’s mastery over its viral adversaries no longer seems assured.
Wolfe’s solution is fight dangerous viruses before they go global. Wolfe envisions a technologically sophisticated and well-connected situation room in which to monitor viral “chatter” from around the world. By doing so, we can detect viral outbreaks in their early stages before they spread around the world and become the next deadly pandemic.
Although some reviewers thought The Viral Storm might have been too anecdotal in places or felt slow or meandering, I on the other hand enjoyed it. After reading The Viral Storm I felt like I came away with a greater understanding of viruses, especially in the larger context of human evolution. This is a very good book and I no qualms recommending it.