A picture, dated December 20, 2020, of a mural in New Delhi depicting the fight against the corona virus. (Sanchit Khanna/HT PHOTO)
A picture, dated December 20, 2020, of a mural in New Delhi depicting the fight against the corona virus. (Sanchit Khanna/HT PHOTO)

Review: Covid-19: Separating Fact from Fiction by Anirban Mahapatra

Anirban Mahapatra’s book places the coronavirus disease pandemic in the context of the science of viruses and viral pandemics
By Sukumar Ranganathan
PUBLISHED ON MAR 05, 2021 10:36 PM IST
256pp, ₹599; Penguin
256pp, ₹599; Penguin

There are many ways in which one can write about an evolving event such as the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic, which is unique in some non-virological and non-epidemiological ways as well.

It is the first pandemic of the Internet Age (SARS broke when the Internet was still in its infancy, and vaccine technology, patently previous generation). As such it is also the first pandemic of the Information Age, which comes with its own Mr Hyde, misinformation.

One is the classic news-you-can-use approach. After all, the coronavirus disease affects pretty much everyone; avoiding it requires the use of masks, social distancing, staying away from crowded indoor facilities (including air-conditioned malls and offices), and repeated washing of hands. At least in the initial months, it also included the wearing of gloves and the furious cleaning of surfaces although it is now clear that catching an infection from a surface is rare; the virus, after all, is airborne, although most of the infection appears to be aerosol based, from close contact with an infected person whose respiratory droplets carry the virus.

That — the potential airborne nature of the SARS-CoV-2 virus as prudent scientists term it — offers a natural segue into the second approach, the real-time scientific commentary. It took a long time for public health agencies to admit the (potential) airborne nature of the virus that causes Covid-19; there was significant debate before the universal relevance and benefits of masks were acknowledged; and many false dawns with therapies (remember HCQ, and Remdesivir, and plasma therapy). Because Covid-19 affects us all, and because there is a sudden surge of interest in viruses, infection curves, therapies, and vaccines (accompanied by a huge increase in the volume of non-peer-reviewed research being published), a new category of experts has emerged. Some trained, some untrained, they have sought to make sense of it all — in real-time. I’d like to think of the column I wrote for this newspaper for 10 months (238 instalments in all) as an effort in this direction.

The third, because Covid-19 is a public health crisis that has resulted in an economic crisis, is an approach that critiques the governmental response to both.

All are interesting ways to write about something that has changed everything. It has, at last count, infected 115,049,044 and killed 2,551,767 (Figures for March 2 on worldometers.info/coronavirus/). Many more are likely to have been infected without ever knowing about it. In addition to lives, it has taken a toll on livelihoods. It has affected social interactions, work, play, education, even the simple act of popping down to the corner store to pick up milk and eggs.

But there is a fourth way to write about it as well. This is to contextualise and place our emerging and growing knowledge of the virus, the toll it takes on human bodies, and therapies that treat the disease and vaccines that prevent it within the larger knowledge framework of viruses, viral diseases, and treatments and vaccines. The best books of this kind actually do one better: they use what we have recently learnt about this virus and this disease to improve the framework itself. After all, it is only natural that our knowledge of zoonotic diseases in general, and beta coronaviruses in particular, even the human immune system increases as we learn more about the SARS-COV-2 virus; how it attacks the human body; and the immune system’s response to it.

Anirban Mahapatra’s Covid-19: Separating Fact from Fiction is one such (and thus far, the only such). Mahapatra, a microbiologist, and I have both been on Twitter for over a decade I think, and following each other for almost as long. I do not remember why I started following him, but it’s likely I did so after he posted what is called a threshold concept. These are an established concept in education dating back to the early 21st century (although they have always been there in some form) and refer to insights that once understood, change the way we perceive a subject. The best education, I have come to learn, has to do with teaching threshold concepts (and it is something very few schools or teachers do or even know how to). Threshold concepts are elementary in the true Holmesian sense — obvious once someone has done the hard work of pointing them out. And Mahapatra has that ability.

It’s evident across the book, even when it comes to things that are, at least in hindsight, basic.

Such as when Mahapatra is writing about the structure of the virus.

“One of the central themes of biology, at the level of molecules and atoms, is that structure is related to function. How a large molecule or a biological machine is shaped determines what it does and how well it does its job. If its shape is distorted it might not function well at all. And structures that do a job well are maintained across generations and different species,” he writes.

Author Anirban Mahapatra (Courtesy Penguin)
Author Anirban Mahapatra (Courtesy Penguin)

And a little further down: “The relationship between structure and function is such an obvious and elegant unifying concept that it should be in school biology books. Except it isn’t. I wish someone had told me when I was up at night memorizing minutiae for exams in school. In biology size does matter. And so does shape.”

It is these bits that elevate Covid-19: Separating Fact from Fiction from a book about the coronavirus pandemic to one about understanding the current pandemic in the context of the science of viruses and viral pandemics. Mahapatra’s writing complements this clear-minded approach. It is crisp to the fault of being brief, and he is punctilious about distinguishing between facts and theories. This is a book where the author tells the reader what he knows, and, importantly, what he doesn’t. The names of the chapters themselves reflect Mahapatra’s economy with words: each is a single word (Origins, says one; Immunity, says another; Aftermath, says a third).

I am not convinced this is a book meant for lay audiences, though; but it is perfect for scientifically-inclined amateurs who want to know more about the virus, the disease, and vaccines. There are enough of them around.

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