Animal Viruses and Humans by Warren A. Andiman

Widespread misinformation and the human impulse to blame someone else are striking features of the current Covid-19 crisis — sample sound bites from any Donald Trump or Boris Johnson press conference and you’ll hear questions along the lines of “were social distancing measures implemented fast enough?”, “Do our leaders really understand the gravity of the situation?”.

Warren Andiman’s short book doesn’t offer direct answers to these political questions but it does run the reader through a recent history of viruses that have jumped from animals to humans: Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), swine flu, hantavirus, monkeypox, rabies, Ebola, to name a few of the most egregious suspects.

All these nasty illnesses are connected by the the ease with which they can be transmitted between species, a fact Yale epidemiology professor Andiman illuminates with a litany of memorable anecdotes.

Who would have thought the first case of MERS was identified in a camel owner who had spent time applying ointment to the nostrils of his sick herd? Or that farm animal pathogens would cause chaos on a US military base in the form of a novel strain of swine flu? Or that the contamination of date-palm juice with bat excrement played a likely role in spreading the deadly Nipah virus in Bangladesh?

This short book makes absolutely clear that the forensic tracking of transmission is critical during any serious outbreak. When Ebola struck the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Uganda in 2007 it was only after researchers discovered a spike in the DRC’s fruit bat population that the international community could understand how best to respond.

As markets crash and nations struggle to respond to this pandemic, Andiman’s guide helps the reader to make better behavioral decisions. At the very least, knowing there’s a direct correlation between number of virus particles ingested and severity of sickness should make you less likely to touch your face and more likely to wash your hands.

ANIMAL VIRUSES AND HUMANS is published by Paul Dry Books, pp.258, $19.95, May 2018.

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