Book review: Spike - The Virus vs the People, by Sir Jeremy Farrar and Anjana Ahuja
Was Covid-19 engineered in a Chinese lab? Did it leak out by accident, or was it let loose deliberately? Did the UK Government “follow the science” as it has claimed to do in its response to Covid-19? And what can we do to prevent catastrophes on this scale happening again?
Sir Jeremy Farrar and co-author and Financial Times Science Columnist Anjana Ahuja aim to answer these questions in their account of the pandemic so far, Spike: The Virus vs the People. They promise to give the reader the “inside story” on the key decisions made in the first and second waves of the pandemic in the UK and on a global scale. Farrar, a scientist with medical and immunological training, is a member of the UK Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), the Vaccine Taskforce and the Principles Group of the ACT-Accelerator hosted by the World Health Organization (WHO).
The book includes private interactions with a roll call of some of the biggest names in the global and UK Covid-19 response, including WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, UK Government Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance and England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty, as well as Boris Johnson’s former adviser Dominic Cummings and former fellow SAGE member Neil Ferguson. It draws on phone calls, emails, texts and tweets, and is mostly a personal account, from December 2019 through to the second wave.
Spike claims to read “like a thriller”, and it certainly does pull the reader in. The spy novel-like section, in which Farrar buys a burner phone and has serious conversations with close family and friends in case anything "happens to him" as he investigates the true source of Covid-19, must have been genuinely frightening, but feels a little over-egged. More understated but equally as gripping is the frantic communication with other scientists at the beginning of the outbreak in China, as they struggle to get hold of information and share it with the rest of the world before it’s too late. Andrew Rambaut, an evolutionary biologist at Edinburgh University, played a key role here, helping to make the virus sequence public in March 2020.
The latter part of the book examines whether the UK Government “followed the science” in its response to Covid-19. Farrar takes a less political view than Sunday Times journalists Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott in their recent exposé of UK Government decision-making Failures of State, but his anger and frustration is clear, as time after time scientific advice is misrepresented or completely ignored, from Johnson's “haphazard, hour-by-hour decision making” in March 2020 which wasted money and time, to the delay in locking down again six months later which lead to so many preventable deaths that tragedy is “too mundane a word” to describe what happened.
The recklessness begins to sound worryingly familiar as Farrar describes “Independence Day” in summer 2020, when restrictions were lifted while cases were still rising and test and trace could not be relied upon. While he voices concerns about new variants, he stops short of any predictions for the future. Instead, with his background in global health, Farrar advocates fiercely for better cooperation and future-proofing so the world does not face a catastrophe on this scale again. His insight into vaccine development is particularly interesting – from conversations with Chief Executive of Moderna Stéphane Bancel at the beginning of the pandemic to the current hoarding of vaccines by rich countries.
Covid-19 will inevitably spawn a litany of “inside stories” and first-hand accounts of how the pandemic was managed and decisions were taken. Written by a top scientist, Spike is more technical than some other accounts, but nonetheless a page-turner. It gives a fascinating insight into the world of the movers and shakers in global public health and an education in the mutation of viruses and development of vaccines. It also seethes with the despairing incredulity now typical of so many scientists at the decisions – or lack of them – taken by the UK Government.
Spike: The Virus vs the People, by Sir Jeremy Farrar and Anjana Ahuja, 272pp, Profile Books, £14.99
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