Breathless: The Scientific Race to Defeat a Deadly Virus

Finalist, National Book Awards 2022 for Nonfiction

book cover for David Quammen, Breathless: The Scientific Race to Defeat a Deadly Virus
ISBN 9781982164362
Simon & Schuster
David Quammen author photo
David Quammen

David Quammen’s 16 previous books include The Tangled Tree, a National Book Award Finalist; The Song of the DodoThe Reluctant Mr. Darwin; and Spillover, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and recipient of the Premio Letterario Merck, in Rome. More about this author >

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From the publisher:

The story of the worldwide scientific quest to decipher the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, trace its source, and make possible the vaccines to fight the Covid-19 pandemic.

Breathless is the story of SARS-CoV-2 and its fierce journey through the human population, as seen by the scientists who study its origin, its ever-changing nature, and its capacity to kill us. David Quammen expertly shows how strange new viruses emerge from animals into humans as we disrupt wild ecosystems, and how those viruses adapt to their human hosts, sometimes causing global catastrophe. He explains why this coronavirus will probably be a “forever virus,” destined to circulate among humans and bedevil us endlessly, in one variant form or another. As scientists labor to catch it, comprehend it, and control it, with their high-tech tools and methods, the virus finds ways of escape.

Based on interviews with nearly one hundred scientists, including leading virologists in China and around the world, Quammen explains that:

• Infectious disease experts saw this pandemic coming
• Some scientists, for more than two decades, warned that “the next big one” would be caused by a changeable new virus—very possibly a coronavirus—but such warnings were ignored for political or economic reasons
• The precise origins of this virus may not be known for years, but some clues are compelling, and some suppositions can be dismissed
• And much more.

Breathless takes you inside the frantic international effort to understand and control SARS-CoV-2 as if we were peering over the shoulders of the brilliant scientists who led the chase.

Judges Citation

In an attempt to understand the mechanics and the history of COVID-19, David Quammen has written a richly illuminating and marvelously informed account of the wide array of scientists and officials from across the globe reckoning with a virus whose aftermath is still being determined. Deeply engaging and at times harrowing, Breathless clarifies where the science stands thus far on the virus with a climbing death toll of more than a million people in the US alone.


David Quammen at the 2022 National Book Awards Finalist Reading