Jul 30, 2022
[This is one of the finalists in the 2022 book review contest. It’s not by me - it’s by an ACX reader who will remain anonymous until after voting is done, to prevent their identity from influencing your decisions. I’ll be posting about one of these a week for several months. When you’ve read them all, I’ll ask you to vote for a favorite, so remember which ones you liked - SA]
Alina Chan and Matt Ridley’s Viral is a book about the investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. In case you haven’t been following, there’s been a shift in the scientific consensus on this topic. For about the first year of the pandemic, it was widely accepted that SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind COVID-19, had a natural origin, meaning that it first spread to humans naturally from an animal (also called a zoonotic origin). Any suggestion that it could have come from a lab was dismissed as a conspiracy theory. Then, sometime around spring 2021 something changed. Well-known, respected scientists began to voice the opinion that SARS-CoV-2 might have come from a lab, or that it’s at least a plausible hypothesis that deserves an investigation. The scientific consensus abruptly shifted from “definitely natural origin” to “both natural origin and lab origin are viable hypotheses that should be investigated.”
Viral is a deep dive into this issue from all angles, covering the basics of virology, the history and epidemiology of the COVID-19 pandemic, the response of scientific and governmental institutions, and various pieces of evidence for both hypotheses. It doesn’t contain any new, bombshell revelations, but it’s a neat, accessible summary of the scattered bits of information that have been uncovered since the start of the pandemic. In this review I’ll try to distill some of the most important information and discuss my own interpretation of it.
I enjoyed the book and recommend it to anyone interested in the topic. However, many of the authors’ points (especially on technical issues) have counterpoints from other scientists who lean more heavily towards the natural origins hypothesis. So I think it’s best to include the book as part of a “package-deal” recommendation, rather than presenting it as a perfectly objective source. The last section of this review will include some more recommended sources to check out, including writing from advocates of the natural origins hypothesis with counterpoints to claims made in the book. I’ll also link one here in case you don’t make it that far.
In my view, the book actually deals with two separate topics. The first is the object-level question – where did COVID come from? The second is the meta-level question – what can we say about the ability and willingness of different institutions to answer the question of the pandemic’s origins?