Books·Canadian

The Invisible Siege by Dan Werb

A nonfiction book about the history of coronaviruses.

A nonfiction book about the history of coronaviruses

The once-in-a-century pandemic caused by COVID-19 — the third deadly coronavirus to emerge in the past twenty years — fixed humanity's gaze on the virus's present and immediate future. But the story of this pandemic extends far further back than many realize. In this fascinating narrative, epidemiologist Dan Werb traces the rise of the coronavirus family and society's desperate attempt to counter its threat. In the process, he weaves another kind of family history: that of a group of scientists who foresaw the danger and spent decades working to stop a looming pandemic.

When virologist Ralph Baric began researching coronaviruses in the 1980s, the field was a scientific backwater — the few variants known to infect humans caused little more than the common cold. But when a novel coronavirus sparked the 2003 SARS epidemic, this obscure viral family became the single greatest pandemic threat our species faced. For all its novelty, the SARS epidemic shared alarming similarities with historical moments when coronaviruses made rare but deadly jumps from animals to human hosts. When the MERS virus emerged ten years later — the blink of an eye in virological time — Baric and his allies realized that time was running out before a pandemic strain would make the inevitable jump. 

In The Invisible Siege, Werb unpacks the dynamic history and microscopic complexity of an organism that has wreaked cycles of havoc upon the world for millennia. Elegantly tracing decades of scientific investigation, Werb illuminates how Baric's team of scientists hatched an audacious plan not merely to battle COVID-19, but to end pandemics forever. Yet as they raced to develop vaccines and therapeutics that struck at coronaviruses' key biological mechanisms, they ran headlong into a complicated nexus of science, ethics, industry, and politics that threatened to derail their efforts just as COVID-19 loomed ever larger. 

The Invisible Siege is at once the story of an unprecedented global scientific movement to stop COVID-19 — a rare success story in a pandemic defined by system failure—and the infuriating factors that even now threaten to leave essential scientific discovery unfinished and the world vulnerable to the ravages of the inevitable coronaviruses to come. (From Crown)

The Invisible Siege won the 2022 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction. 

Weston Prize jury citation: "The COVID-19 pandemic has been the most disruptive event in world history since the Second World War. More than one million people have died, the global economy has been shaken, anti-science populist extremism has become a potent force, and other issues like climate change have been overshadowed by the debate over public health measures. Dan Werb tells us how we got here through an authoritative, scientific explanation of coronaviruses. The Invisible Siege is a scientific detective story that leaves the reader frightened that the villain is still on the loose, and maybe in the house."

The Invisible Siege is a scientific detective story that leaves the reader frightened that the villain is still on the loose, and maybe in the house.- 2022 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction

Dan Werb is an epidemiologist, policy analyst and writer currently based in Toronto. He is also the author of the nonfiction work City of Omens.

Why Dan Werb wrote The Invisible Siege

"Humans have a collective action problem. We all know that, we see it all the time. When you're trying to muster up a collective action for a threat that has not yet presented itself, it's almost impossible. There are so many threats to health, there are so many other viruses that currently exist in the world that it seems irrational to devote attention to a future threat if you can't see it, you can't predict it and you don't know what it's going to look like and you're dealing with things in the here and now.

Humans have a collective action problem. We all know that, we see it all the time.- Dan Werb

"If we want this pandemic to end ⁠— and really end, not to be something that we seasonally dealing with ⁠— we need to make sure that the kinds of protections that we as Canadians are enjoying are exported across the world. That's the most self-interested move we can make if we want to hasten the end of the pandemic."

 Listen to the full interview on The Sunday Magazine.

Interviews with Dan Werb

Canadian epidemiologist Dan Werb says humanity has a long history of underestimating coronaviruses. He joins Piya Chattopadhyay to talk about his new book The Invisible Siege: The Rise of Coronaviruses and the Search for a Cure. The book traces the surprisingly long history of the virus family and the scientists who went to war with it, as well as the lessons learned and lost during the SARS and MERS outbreaks. Werb says there is no doubt coronaviruses will strike again, and that understanding them is the best way to be prepared.

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