Sonia Shah is not your run-of-the-mill science journalist or writer on the pandemic. She has written on “The Fever: How Malaria Ruled Humankind for 500,000 Years,” and “The Body Hunters: Testing New Drugs on The World’s Poorest Patients.” She has also written on “Crude: The Story of Oil.”
Divided neatly into ten chapters, starting from what she called ‘the jump,’ therein how the virus makes the leap into the human host, to the tenth chapter, which is ‘Tracking the next Contagion,’ Shah knows the nitty-gritty of Cholera to HIV, right down to Ebola and Coronavirus. However, since this book was completed in 2017, the book does not cover the pandemic of SARS Cov II at all.
This is not necessarily a sin of omission, though. Shah, quoting Brad Spellberg, a top epidemiologist at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA), “the world has to accept that the number of viruses outweighs humanity by one hundred thousand fold” (pg 8).
What one refers to as a pandemic—–in other words a trans-boundary global disease—-will keep coming at humanity nonstop. The issue is the scale of the global outbreak. In the current pandemic, the world has been deeply disrupted.
Thus, whether it is Cholera, Lyme Disease, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), or, the Middle East Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (MESARS), there will be no permanent end to the threat of a future pandemic. The world has to stay eternally vigilant.
Invariably, this does not affect humanity only. Even the animal world, potentially the world of amphibians, where the existence of some viruses can wipe out more amphibious species, therefore disrupting the world of mother nature, can be an unavoidable happenstance too. When this happens, the human ecology will become entwined with the imbalance in the natural world.
The latter can make the world out of whack, or, balance, even before human beings have lapsed into hyper development or deforestation. That’s the warning of Sonia Shah, on the delicate nature of our world.
It is interesting to note, too, that Shah knows the history of SARS very well, especially how the intermingling of various wild species at the wet markets, all cramped together, dead or alive, have created the perfect conditions for cross-infection between species (pg 16).
Not unlike SARS, Cholera, which can have a mortality rate of more than 50 percent—-that is if a person does not have the right access to the proper public health facilities—-also started in the bodies of animals too (pg 18).
Interestingly, the creatures that “harbor cholera live in the sea” (Ibid 18). They are a kind of “tiny crustaceans called copepods” (ibid 18). Their partners are Vibrio Cholerae.
The first (cholera) pandemic, according to Shah, occurred in the area known as Sundarbans, near the Bay of Bengals.
The area was left alone by even by the Mughal Emperors.
However, it was in Sundarbans, where the freshwater and the salty water met, which produced more and more copepods and Vibrio Cholerae (pg 21). This area remains rich with microbes. It would trigger more cases of Cholera should one ignore this scientific fact.
Historically, due to the extensive nature by which the East India Company ventured into the area in the 1760s, cultivating the surrounding Sundarbans into massive rice fields—-where up to 90 percent of the location was transformed into an agricultural basin—-more and more humans came into contact with the microbes in the brackish waters. This indeed resulted in the serious outbreak of cholera in 1817 (ibid 21).
According to Shah, it is important to note that all the microbes can come from “furred and winged creatures” around us too (pg 22). Over 70 percent do come from “wild animals” (ibid 22).
And, of the “4600 species of mammals, up to 20 percent are bats,” Shah affirmed (pg 25). Unfortunately, bats may be bony and small.
But they live in “giant colonies of millions of individuals,” (ibid 25). They are “good incubators”; some of which can survive for “as long as 35 years” (ibid 25).
Bats also have “unusual immune systems”. For example, according to Shah, precisely because their bones are hollow, like those of birds, bats don’t produce immune cells in their bone marrow like the rest of us mammals do” (Ibid 25). As a result, “bats host a wide range of unique microbes that are exotic to other animals”(ibid 25).
More importantly, “bats can travel long distances” (ibid 25). Some even “migrate traveling hundreds of thousands of miles” (Ibid 25). They are also messy fruit eaters, allowing their saliva to taint the fruits, which can lead to an animal to animal transmission.
Invariably, when humans consume such animals or wild games, their weak immune system would lead to cross-contamination.
In 2014 alone, the virus from bats in New Guinea sickened more than a million people across West Africa through Ebola (pg 27).
To be sure, Shah argued that microbes were first on earth “3 billion years ago” (pg 179). They “had radiated in every single habitat”.
Be it in the soil, the sea, indeed, even deep inside the Earth’s crust. Some could withstand a temperature of up to 230 degrees Fahrenheit, feeding on everything from “sunlight to methane” (pg 179).
To microbes, human bodies are just another niche to fill, not necessarily to kill, although if our body system is immuno-compromised, we will be destroyed by them too.
All-in-all, this is a fantastic book that deserves the attention of all. Be they scientists or lay persons.
Shah’s gripping account of previous pandemics shows the extent to which humanity should not be arrogant.
They must not consider themselves as the best living things to walk on the surface of the world; much as they can develop a vaccine to counter them. The world is always at the mercy of microbes. By this token, globalization too.
Pandemic is a natural and cyclical occurrence and will come in waves, with no peaks to flatten, except momentarily.