I admit: I sighed softly when I found the unsolicited copy of “Pandemics. How Viruses Change the World” on my desk. Another book about Covid … What still got me to open the book was the foreword by Christian Drosten. If someone who actually has better things to do writes a preface for it, this one move should be worthwhile. Before I get to the foreword, however, I get irritated by the first page: an excerpt from “Alien”. I begin to leaf through, then to read, then to submerge.
With “Pandemics” Philipp Kohlhöfer tells a quick and unusual story of scientific adventures, coincidences, encounters – in scenes. As a reader, I get to know the scientists behind the viruses. People like – of course – Christian Drosten, Melanie Brinkmann, Gerd Sutter and various others. If the book were a film, I would comment on the fast editing. The publisher calls this science point. I call it refreshingly lively, verbose, and entertaining.
Pathogens that terrify the world
There is something very personal about it when we stand invisible in the corner of the room while Angela Merkel Drosten calls the institute and asks “if you could talk longer, the days”. But the book hurts too. For example, when Kohlhöfer writes: “It cannot be mentioned often enough, and that’s why it comes up again, in the whole sentence, beautifully striking: The best protection against pandemics is species-rich and resilient ecosystems.”
The table of contents does not suggest any of this. It enumerates the pathogens that have terrified the world or are currently doing so. And of course, that’s exactly what it’s about. It’s about SARS-CoV-2, Ebola, measles, HIV, Hanta or Hendra. I’m traveling back to the time of the Spanish flu a good hundred years ago. I go looking for viruses in caves with a bat researcher. I sit there when the Pforzheim lung specialist Tushira Weerawarna gets into bizarre application situations in England, and I look over Drosten’s shoulder as he develops the PCR test.
Kohlhöfer knows how to breathe life into science, imparting in-depth knowledge at the same time and placing current events in a historical context. Vaccination opponents and disease skeptics seem to be particularly fond of it. His book is a clear statement: “Yes, I am biased. I am pro science,” he writes right at the beginning. He didn’t have to write that, but he is an author of clear words. And that is extremely entertaining. For those who enjoy his direct and graphic language, it is difficult to stop, because cliffhangers do not only work in crime novels. The question remains for the publisher, why he gave this witty book such a generic and mindless title.