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Good Reads  Organismal to Molecular Biology  Microbiology

COVID-19 The Pandemic that Never Should Have Happened, and How to Stop the Next One

Popular Science
By: Debora MacKenzie(Author)
279 pages, no illustrations
COVID-19 is a perfectly-timed, intriguing, and revelatory story of how we failed to prepare ourselves despite decades of concern about pandemics.
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  • COVID-19 ISBN: 9780349128375 Paperback Sep 2021 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 5 days
  • COVID-19 ISBN: 9780349128351 Hardback Jul 2020 In stock
Selected version: £18.99
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About this book

In a gripping, accessible narrative, a veteran science journalist lays out the shocking story of how the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic happened and how to make sure this never happens again

Over the last 30 years of epidemics and pandemics, we learned every lesson needed to stop this coronavirus outbreak in its tracks. We heeded almost none of them. The result is a pandemic on a scale never before seen in our lifetimes. In this captivating, authoritative, and eye-opening book, science journalist Debora MacKenzie lays out the full story of how and why it happened: the previous viruses that should have prepared us, the shocking public health failures that paved the way, the failure to contain the outbreak, and most importantly, what we must do to prevent future pandemics.

Debora MacKenzie has been reporting on emerging diseases for more than three decades, and she draws on that experience to explain how COVID-19 went from a potentially manageable outbreak to a global pandemic. Offering a compelling history of the most significant recent outbreaks, including SARS, MERS, H1N1, Zika, and Ebola, she gives a crash course in Epidemiology 101 – how viruses spread and how pandemics end – and outlines the lessons we failed to learn from each past crisis. In vivid detail, she takes us through the arrival and spread of COVID-19, making clear the steps that governments knew they could have taken to prevent or at least prepare for this. Looking forward, MacKenzie makes a bold, optimistic argument: this pandemic might finally galvanize the world to take viruses seriously. Fighting this pandemic and preventing the next one will take political action of all kinds, globally, from governments, the scientific community, and individuals – but it is possible.

No one has yet brought together our knowledge of COVID-19 in a comprehensive, informative, and accessible way. But that story can already be told, and Debora MacKenzie's urgent telling is required reading for these times and beyond. It is too early to say where the COVID-19 pandemic will go, but it is past time to talk about what went wrong and how we can do better.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • How we failed to prepare ourselves
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 27 Jul 2020 Written for Hardback

    Saying that the COVID-19 pandemic should not have happened will likely elicit one of two responses. Blaming China for initially trying to cover it up, or saying: "accidents happen, this is speaking with the benefit of hindsight". Appealing as these may sound, they are missing the bigger picture. The awful truth is that we have had this one coming for a long time.

    Seeing this is a very hot topic, I think it is worth pointing out what you will not find in this book before diving into the rest of the review. Despite the title, you will not find all that much about the virological, epidemiological, or clinical details of COVID-19 and the virus SARS-CoV-2. As we are still in the middle of learning the biological details, you are better off just keeping a close watch on the news. That post-mortem will have to wait – although the primer Understanding Coronavirus provides useful basics on what we know so far.

    The clue is in the subtitle. Debora MacKenzie writes this book from her unique vantage point as a veteran journalist reporting on infectious diseases for New Scientist and other outlets for over 30 years. With the world’s attention on pandemics, now is the best moment to draw our collective attention to her shocking tale of neglect and complacency in the face of warnings from the scientific community.

    Judging by what MacKenzie describes here, it has been a perfect storm of various factors that got us to this point. There was a surge of optimism in the 1970s: we eradicated smallpox, we had vaccines to prevent childhood diseases, and antibiotics stopped all sorts of harmful bacteria. A leading medical textbook at the time even declared the future of infectious diseases to likely be very dull. Research departments were downsized as funding dried up. Public health stopped being a state-funded public good as the medical industry was swept up in the wave of privatisation of the 1980s. And networks for research and disease monitoring in developing countries were cast off as excess baggage from colonial times. In short, high on its medical triumphs, the world grew complacent.

    But our victory was short-lived.

    Ever since AIDS went global in the 1980s, disease experts have been trying to predict what might be the next big threat. We have had plenty of near-misses, such as Ebola, Zika, SARS, and MERS. Seeing the relevance of the latter two – they are both caused by coronaviruses – MacKenzie covers their outbreaks in detail. And then there is a whole chapter on flu, the annual recurrence of which has become so routine that we have stopped calling it a pandemic. Next to straightening out the misconception that COVID-19 “is just another kind of flu”, this is relevant because what little governments have in the way of pandemic preparedness plans is based around flu outbreaks. And those prominently do not recommend containment measures: pointless for the fast-moving flu, but relevant for COVID-19.

    This is the background against which warnings have been issued and, by and large, ignored. The WHO has had a list of the viral Most Unwanted for years, prominently mentioning coronaviruses. Disease experts, reporters (MacKenzie amongst them), and writers of popular books have sounded the alarm for years. But hey, we have had enough of experts, right? If that was not enough of a slap in the face of science deniers, she ruthlessly despatches some harmful conspiracy theories (no, this virus was not brewed up in a laboratory).

    Before getting to proposed solutions, MacKenzie dives down a few rather relevant rabbit holes. One is a very interesting chapter on bats. Bats host numerous viruses that can jump to humans, so they warrant close monitoring. MacKenzie issues a plea to not shoot the chiropteran messenger: certain groups are important pollinators. Plus, and this will not go down with some but is something I appreciated, human overpopulation and the accompanying encroachment into wild habitats is the root cause here. She dispels as a red herring the idea of pangolins as an intermediate host. But most interesting of all, she casts a shadow of doubt on the whole bushmeat and wet market story. Yes, bats are eaten in parts of the world, but they are usually larger fruit bats. Instead, MacKenzie asks, what about traditional Chinese medicine? Horseshoe bats, which carry coronaviruses, and their faeces are ground up wholesale and used to for example treat eye infections. Next to that potential infection pathway, it involves catching and handling bats. So far this is speculation, but these are reasonable questions to ask. One of the things I really appreciated in this book is that MacKenzie does not mince her words and is not afraid to broach contentious topics.

    The other seeming rabbit hole is that of the complexity of our societies. What if a more lethal pandemic emerges? This is a short trip into the science of complex systems, feedback loops, tipping points, resilience to shocks, global supply chains, and, ultimately, the possibility of rapid collapse. Oh, and, depending on your point of view, a (un)surprising list of typically undervalued and poorly paid jobs that actually keep society running.

    These two topics return in the extended list of seven lessons for the future with which MacKenzie sees the book out. Most of these involve changes at the international level. What we do not need now is blame games. What we do need is more openness and cooperation regarding disease surveillance. Despite some criticism of the WHO here, she also highlights just how limited their budget is, and how their hands are tied due to the sovereign rights of nation-states that can simply hide information and refuse health inspections. We need more preparation, both research and stockpiling of supplies. We need to recognize systems complexity and accept reduced efficiency (and thus increased costs) to allow more redundancy and resilience in global supply chains. But the most important lesson, I thought, is recognizing that profit-driven market forces cannot deliver new vaccines and antibiotics. This is not about “evil corporations”, it is simply that the risk of failure and the frequent lack of return on investment work against us. This is why we have governments that fund public goods.

    MacKenzie admits that COVID-19, written as it was in a mere two frenetic months, is somewhat rough around the edges. Personally, I think illustrations would have helped to explain certain biological details that she presumes understood, and an index would have been useful. But given the circumstances, their omission is perfectly understandable. What the book does deliver is a perfectly-timed, intriguing, and revelatory story of the dangers of ignoring science. And for a debut book, this is all the more impressive.
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Popular Science
By: Debora MacKenzie(Author)
279 pages, no illustrations
COVID-19 is a perfectly-timed, intriguing, and revelatory story of how we failed to prepare ourselves despite decades of concern about pandemics.
Media reviews

"You could not hope for a better guide to the pandemic world order than Debora MacKenzie, who's been on this story from the start. This is an authoritative yet readable explanation of how this catastrophe happened – and more important, how it will happen again if we don't change"
– Tim Harford, author of The Undercover Economist, Adapt and Messy

"This definitely deserves a read – the first of the post mortems by a writer who knows what she's talking about"
– Laura Spinney, author of Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu Of 1918 and How It Changed the World

"I loved this book. Fast-paced, engaging, couldn't put it down. A heart-pounding telling of the misadventures that led to one of the worst pandemics in history. A story that we all think we know, but don't. And a story whose lessons, if unlearned, we will be condemned to repeat"
– Dr Paul Ofitt, author of Pandora's Lab and Vaccinated, Director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia

"A fascinating behind the scenes look [...] If someone asks you why the COVID-19 epidemic happened and how we can prevent the next one, hand them this book"
– Steffanie Strathdee, PhD, Associate Dean of Global Health Sciences, University of California San Diego, and co-author of The Perfect Predator: A Scientist's Race to Save Her Husband from a Deadly Superbug

"A vivid account of the origins and fortunes of coronavirus, warning that worse may be yet to come [...] Charting the etiology and course of the virus, MacKenzie observes that nearly everything about its origins and spread offers lessons on how not to act when the next pandemic comes [...] Essential, enlightening reading in a time of panic and plague"
– Starred review, Kirkus

"Debora MacKenzie is a leading science journalist, with vast experience writing about pandemic threats and neglected diseases. She uses her background to hit the ground running on one of the first books written on the emergence of COVID-19. As politicians and elected leaders increasingly work to change the narrative on COVID-19 on their steps to first contain and mitigate the pandemic, Debora's efforts lay it all out in stark terms"
– Dr Peter Hotez, Author of Vaccines Did Not Cause Rachel's Autism, Dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine

"So often, people look at the nature of disease in the midst of an outbreak when, really, it's the interaction between the disease and people that matters. That is at the heart of epidemiology, and it's what MacKenzie does beautifully in her book. Whether it's cultural practices with animals like bats, or the fear and delay in labeling it pandemic, to a woeful lack of funding for public health and vaccine research, or the misguided notion that disease will recognize boundaries just because people do – MacKenzie's fascinating book gives us the scope and scale to be able to put this pandemic in perspective and, it begs the question, will we learn from this in time to prevent to next one"
– Molly Crosby, author of The American Plague, Asleep and The Great Pearl Heist

"Some people write interesting autobiographical recollections of people, places, and events, while others offer an extensive and comprehensive anthology of a topic area. Deborah Mackenzie has not only succeeded in doing both in a single volume, but in a manner that is immensely engaging [...] an excellent work for general consumption as well as for those already involved in communicable disease control, microbiology, epidemiology, and medical journalism. In our present climate of regrettable tweets, unverified facts, and deliberate misinformation, this timely book provides a delightful and important excursion into the world of outbreaks, epidemics, and pandemics"
– Tim Sly, epidemiologist and Professor Emeritus at Ryerson University's School of Public Health

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