Science that works is choral, against the spillover of disinformation

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Viruses are parasites, genetic parasites. Their fame is (in part) undeserved. Their worst representative, the coronavirus, which marked a canonical “before” and “after” in our daily lives, did not testify in favor of the category. But in some cases the relationship that binds us to viruses is symbiotic. Without them, life on Earth would not be the same. For example, our species, which owes viruses two sections of its precious DNA, could not carry a pregnancy to term. “They are the black angels of evolution, great and terrible. This is why they are worth understanding, rather than just fearing or deprecating them.

David Quammen’s latest book, published (like the others) by Adelphi, recalls how much Covid-19 has taken everyone by surprise, except biologists. His previous work was a warning, as were some of the researchers he interviewed in his new work. The headlines spoke of the “next pandemic” and it was not editorial hype. «Spillovers», the leap from one species to another, has become a term of almost current use in our homes in lockdownwe have recycled ourselves to a country of virologists after a past as national coach.

We were hungry for certainties. Science is always “provisional”: it seemed to us a defect, in reality it is its strength. In those months we gave excessive credit to imaginative or, at most, “improbable” hypotheses, because in the end the discourse is (also) probabilistic. We are not cured of the already forgotten xenophobia of Ebola. The value of the book is also this: it dismantles, one by one, some theories that have become “news” too quickly and were not. One spillovers that too, of fake news.

The snake soup, the escape from the laboratory, the slaughter of minks or pangolins, raccoon dogs. Little animals who became protagonists of the day, whose appearance we didn’t even know. The media have guiltily relaunched searches preprint (not yet approved or published) that would have been deleted from scientific journals and often withdrawn by their respective authors.

It’s not an invitation to inertia, far from it. “A new virus, if luck turns good for the virus and bad for us, can cross the human population like a large-caliber bullet penetrates a tender sirloin of beef.” It should be understood as a warning light on the dashboard: the task – of the press, of the health authorities, of the institutions – is to disseminate information, not anxiety.

At the same time, transparency and communication must be guaranteed. After all, at the first attestations we thought it was a flu. It wasn’t. In those early days of the Apocalypse, updates of a “frustrating vagueness” arrive from China. In the same hours, the Wuhan market is closed, in a city of eleven million inhabitants.

The Spanish flu was the latest pandemic of an era – that of the bubonic plague – where viruses could not yet be looked at under a microscope. In his paper microscope, Quammen guides readers through the ordinary (and otherwise) lives of extraordinary scientists, to the origins of the less famous “relatives” of the coronavirus family, from the protein spike which resembles Velcro in binding to host cells, used as a 3D printer to replicate.

“Super diffuser” was an old concept, it already applied to HIV, so twentieth-century. Then general rehearsals. Sars, in 2003, when “we dodged a bullet” but we did not learn – at least, not in all countries – that “a disease anywhere in the world means a disease everywhere”. RNA viruses mutate faster than any other species on Earth. Thus most of the countries will be found unprepared “due to lack of imagination”.

South Korea, mindful of that lesson, mobilizes a nationwide tracking machine and shuts everything down. The US is wasting time (and lives). White House virologist Anthony Fauci, interviewed in the volume, claims the “political decision” to speak out against President Donald Trump, whose skids are part of two out of the three cases of “magic” Quammen writes about and which look more like the wishful thinkingmagical thinking.

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The first is to wait for the virus to go away on its own, the second to hope for early drug therapies. Remember hydroxychloroquine? The US FDA will withdraw the emergency authorization granted under pressure from the Republican president. Finally, the myth of herd immunity, also theorized by the British premier Boris Johnson: the road to reach that phantom percentage of immunized people, sixty-five percent of the population, would have been paved with deaths.

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The only “magic” that works are vaccines, which however have remained a prerogative of the rich world for too long. In one paragraph, Fauci proposes the virus as a metaphor. Those of Quammen are surprising, never a whim, but always at the service of disclosure clarity. Even when it comes to acknowledging that viruses are part of life. «Without them we could not continue to exist, without them we would not even have risen from the primordial mud».

We are not the only ones, in short, to be infected and contagious. The very existence of zoonoses – as well as requiring us to prevent them, for example by stopping the illegal smuggling of live wild animals – is an admission of our physiological self-centeredness. A virus does not exist “only” when it affects humans. Before that leap, there are decades, or centuries, of evolutionary history. Many mink, culled en masse in this pandemic, had been infected by humans before infecting each other and returning the favor.

Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta. The variants use the Greek alphabet available to WHO. There is the pressure of natural selection. That’s the constant, evolution. In a picture by the author: gazelles wouldn’t run so fast if they didn’t have to run away from lions. “COVID-19 will not be the last pandemic we will see in the 21st century. It probably won’t be the worst.”

In the pages of “Breathless” every now and then one gets the impression of reconstructing the culprit of a crime, but it’s a metaphor that Quammen wouldn’t like. The book has the strength of a journalistic investigation, but it’s better written. It’s a gripping story, between planes in the storm above the tropical jungle and “virus hunters” who immobilize bats in caves to take a sample. We are used to reading about “what went wrong”, but this is the testimony of a scientific community that was ready and perhaps was not listened to enough.

“Breathless” is the latest book by David Quammen, Adelphi, 256 pages, twenty-six euros

The article is in Italian

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