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A citizen’s guide to viruses

This slim volume tells you what you need to know about where they come from and how we fight them.

February 23, 2021
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The deluge of news about covid-19 can be overwhelming, but chemical engineering professor Arup Chakraborty has written a guide to help: Viruses, Pandemics, and Immunity (MIT Press, 2021, $19.95), coauthored with Genentech scientist Andrey Shaw.

“People who read the book will now have a conceptual framework and facts to think about how viruses emerge to cause infectious diseases, how they spread, how we combat them naturally, and how we can combat them with vaccines and therapeutics,” says Chakraborty. The result, he hopes, could be a more pandemic-resilient world.

For all the modern advances in medicine and sanitation, “this pandemic has reminded us that infectious diseases are an existential threat to humankind and have always been,” Chakraborty says. Viruses are a particular danger, especially RNA viruses, which are prone to mutations that allow them to jump between species. SARS-Cov-2, the virus that causes covid-19, is believed to have done just that, likely from bats to humans.

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While the immune system has myriad defenses, they don’t always get the job done. That’s where vaccines come in. The book explains technologies such as attenuated vaccines, which consist of a weakened virus or bacterium; vaccines based on killed pathogens; and subunit vaccines, which contain a fragment of a pathogen. The first to show success against SARS-Cov-2 were a promising new type of subunit vaccine made from RNA that encodes a viral protein. 

The authors are optimistic about covid vaccines, especially given that SARS-Cov-2 does not mutate as rapidly as RNA viruses such as HIV and influenza. Antiviral drugs, too, are a promising strategy, including older therapeutics such as remdesivir and dexamethasone. “When covid-19 first burst onto the scene, many physicians were really unprepared to treat this. But as the months have passed, we’ve become much more familiar with what’s going on, and we have a better idea how to treat these problems,” Shaw says.

In addition to educating the public about immunity, vaccines, therapies, and epidemiology, Chakraborty and Shaw want to inspire young people to pursue related careers and offer policymakers insight into how to combat viral outbreaks. The strategies they envision include improving early diagnostics, surveillance, and epidemiological modeling; creating more targeted approaches to vaccine and drug development; making vaccine manufacturing more flexible; and making living spaces, workplaces, and hospitals safer. They call for partnerships between government, the pharmaceutical industry, and academia to take these steps, aided by government investment.

“Informed by our history of battles with viruses, and the recent lessons learned from the covid-19 pandemic,” they write, “we need to create an integrated system of technologies that will help us prepare to respond more rapidly and effectively the next time.” 

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