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Good Reads  Organismal to Molecular Biology  Microbiology

Viruses, Pandemics, and Immunity

Popular Science
By: Arup P Chakraborty(Author), Andrey S Shaw(Author), Philip J Stork(Illustrator)
206 pages, b/w illustrations
Publisher: MIT Press
An accessible introduction to the viruses that cause pandemics, and the complexities of our immune system.
Viruses, Pandemics, and Immunity
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  • Viruses, Pandemics, and Immunity ISBN: 9780262542388 Paperback Feb 2021 In stock
Price: £17.99
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About this book

How viruses emerge to cause pandemics, how our immune system combats them, and how diagnostic tests, vaccines, and antiviral therapies work.

Throughout history, humans have contended with pandemics. History is replete with references to plagues, pestilence, and contagion, but the devastation wrought by pandemics had been largely forgotten by the twenty-first century. Now, the enormous human and economic toll of the rapidly spreading COVID-19 disease offers a vivid reminder that infectious disease pandemics are one of the greatest existential threats to humanity. This book provides an accessible explanation of how viruses emerge to cause pandemics, how our immune system combats them, and how diagnostic tests, vaccines, and antiviral therapies work – concepts that provide the foundation for our public health policies.

The authors, both experts in immunology, interweave explanations of scientific principles and ongoing efforts to combat COVID-19 with stories of the people behind the science. They recount the eradication of smallpox – the greatest accomplishment of vaccines and public health; discuss microbial pathogens; and describe what we know about modern pandemics, including how they spread, how they can be contained, and how they can be treated. They do not offer prescriptions for what to do, but equip readers to be informed participants in debates about how to create a more pandemic-resilient world. We do not have to repeat the mistakes made with COVID-19.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • A useful primer
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 16 Mar 2021 Written for Paperback

    Last year August, science writer Ed Yong put it very nicely in The Atlantic: "you see, the immune system is very complicated". Yet, understanding it is important to understanding how the COVID-19 pandemic might evolve, why we are faced with certain public health measures, and how we can hope to combat the pandemic with tests and vaccines. In this brief book, physics and chemistry professor Arup K. Chakraborty and immunologist Andrey S. Shaw offer a general introduction to how our immune system reacts to viruses, and how our medical inventions help out.

    I was particularly looking forward to this book. Amidst the growing crop of books on COVID-19, the immunological details have been somewhat neglected. Kucharski's The Rules of Contagion looked at the epidemiology of disease outbreaks but was written just before the pandemic materialised (the paperback addresses this to some extent), while Rabadan's Understanding Coronavirus does what it says on the tin, focusing on the virus, SARS-CoV-2, and the disease, COVID-19.

    Viruses, Pandemics, and Immunity is nicely balanced in the way it treats all the relevant elements to understand this topic. You get two chapters with history, introducing you to early procedures and to important scientists such as Edward Jenner, Robert Koch, and Louis Pasteur. By the end of it, you will understand the difference between variolation and the vaccine methods of respectively Jenner and Pasteur. This is followed by three chapters with the scientific nuts and bolts, looking at viruses, the immune system, and epidemiology, and two final chapters looking at the medical countermeasures of antiviral therapies and vaccines. In all of these chapters, details and findings on SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 are highlighted.

    I admit that I found the middle three chapters a bit hit and miss. The one on viruses is, I think, great, explaining how viruses work by taking over the host cell's replication machinery, how DNA and RNA viruses differ, why COVID-19 went global while SARS and MERS – also caused by coronaviruses – did not, and how SARS-CoV-2 differs from other RNA viruses that we understand better, such as influenza and HIV.

    In light of what I said earlier about the immune system, it is not surprising that the chapter on immunity is the longest. It introduces the two components of our immune system, innate and adaptive, and how both function when the body detects an intruder. The innate immune system is, relatively speaking, the simpler of the two, responding to infection immediately by recognizing general characteristics of bacteria, viruses, and fungi. The authors can describe this in five pages, including details on Toll-like receptors and cytokines. The adaptive immune system needs more time to gear up, 5-10 days in humans, and is the more complex of the two. In some 20 pages, the authors here introduce the byzantine arrangement of B lymphocytes that combat viruses directly, and T lymphocytes that destroy infected cells in the body, as well as the memory cells that both types contribute. But rather than discuss the innate and adaptive immune system in the order in which they get activated, the authors discuss them in reverse order, which I found a bit counterintuitive. Given the complicated nature of the beast, the level of detail might challenge readers not well-versed in biology, though a helpful "putting it all together" section runs you through it all again at the end of the chapter.

    Similarly, the chapter on epidemiology explains the relevant concepts: the basic reproductive number R0, epidemiological models, the effects of public health measures ("flattening the curve"), and herd immunity. The authors also highlight why different countries have been less or more successful in addressing the pandemic, something that will be explored in-depth in Fighting the First Wave. But here, too, the writing sometimes gets a bit complex. The authors spend three pages on a convoluted explanation with numerical examples to tell you that the more infectious a virus is, the higher the fraction of your population that needs to be immune before herd immunity kicks in. Furthermore, they exclusively discuss social distancing and different strategies to achieve herd immunity, from intermittent lockdowns to simply "weathering the storm". But the two other pillars of public health measures, hand washing and face masks, are not even mentioned, even though they make important contributions to reducing R0.

    The last two chapters are spot on again, focusing on the two main weapons in our medical arsenal. Antiviral therapies block one or more steps (entry, replication, assembly, and release) in the viral lifecycle and there is a brief discussion of existing antiviral therapies such as remdesivir and dexamethasone that have been repurposed for use against SARS-CoV-2. Vaccines, then, stimulate our immune system and this is where the immunological details come in again. The upcoming How to Make a Vaccine will cover all these topics in more detail, but there is a good introduction here to the different types of vaccines, clinical trials, and vaccine development, as well as the logistical challenges of the currently required large-scale production and a brief note on why vaccines are safe and certainly preferable over the alternative. Unavoidably, when discussing promising vaccine candidates against COVID-19, some information is already dated. The Moderna vaccine was undergoing trials when this book was written, while the AstraZeneca and Pfizer ones were in the developmental stages. All three are now being rolled out.

    Throughout, the book is livened up with cartoony illustrations by Philip J. Stork, a senior scientist at Oregon Health & Science University. However, the decision to not include figure captions limits their utility in my opinion. Despite annotations in the figures, some are quite cryptic by themselves. Captions could have formed the perfect bridge and condensed the sometimes complex details found in the body of the text.

    Viruses, Pandemics, and Immunity bundles introductions to a number of relevant topics, effectively replacing the need to e.g. get several Very Short Introductions. By highlighting what we know about COVID-19 and SARS-CoV-2 for each of these topics, this welcome book plugs a gap, especially where the immune system is concerned. General readers will want to heed Yong's warning though, because, you see, the immune system is very complicated.
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Arup K. Chakraborty is Robert T. Haslam Professor of Chemical Engineering and Professor of Physics and Chemistry at MIT, where he also served as the Founding Director of the Institute for Medical Engineering and Science. He is a founding member of the Ragon Institute.

Andrey S. Shaw, an immunologist, is Staff Scientist in Immunology and Oncology at Genentech and holds adjunct professorships at Washington University in St. Louis and at the University of California, San Francisco.

Popular Science
By: Arup P Chakraborty(Author), Andrey S Shaw(Author), Philip J Stork(Illustrator)
206 pages, b/w illustrations
Publisher: MIT Press
An accessible introduction to the viruses that cause pandemics, and the complexities of our immune system.
Media reviews

"This remarkable book will take the reader on a fascinating journey – how scientists have developed a deep understanding of our immune system, how this system fights viruses, and how vaccines and antiviral therapies work. This human story addresses the many questions that people worldwide are grappling with during the current global pandemic."
– Arun Majumdar, Stanford University and Founding Director of ARPA-E

"Chakraborty and Shaw's book will satisfy the public thirst for an authoritative account of how destructive pandemics survive despite enormous growth in scientific understanding. Their sobering view of the challenges that remain – to understand antibody action and develop effective vaccines – deserves close attention."
– John Deutch, Former Provost and Institute Professor Emeritus, MIT

"The authors provide a readily accessible introduction to viruses, a class of tiny human pathogens with surprising potential to cause transmissible, sometimes fatal, disease. They speak from a deep understanding of the viruses and the body's response to viral infections. A great book for people who want to understand why viruses are such a challenge to human life."
– David Baltimore, Professor, California Institute of Technology, 1975 Nobel Prize in Medicine for work in virology

"This is a wonderful book that beautifully explains, in a very easy-to-read and understandable way, the history of pandemics and how the diseases that cause them may be conquered."
– Robert Langer, Institute Professor, MIT, and recipient of the US National Medal of Science and the US National Medal of Technology and Innovation

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