A candid account of the course of the pandemic
What if you were given a real-time rear view of the pandemic as it erupted in China to spread across the world, and the driver of the car was a world-experienced scientist offering expert commentary? at each stop?
I would take the opportunity.
Peak is a detailed account of the evolution of the pandemic over the first 18 months. It is written by Dr Jeremy Farrar, an expert in tropical medicine and a member of SAGE, the UK’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies. While much has been written about the pandemic, this book pulls all the events together as they unfolded, meticulously documenting them through the eyes of a doctor. Although written from a global perspective, the book focuses on Britain’s dilemma, response, and experience in some detail.
The book’s title, Peak – Could not have been more appropriate, as it not only refers to the spike protein of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, but also perhaps means that a spike in cases (and deaths) could occur at the result of unsuccessful decisions, or worse –not to decide.
The first part of the book is written like a thriller. The first chapter opens with the author sitting in an airport lounge in Rwanda on December 31, 2020, scanning his phone – when he first became aware of a certain situation in China. The reader gets a first-person account of how Dr. Farrar has networked with important people around the world, in an attempt to decipher the true nature and extent of the problem.
The reader’s interest remains hooked both in the science of the pandemic, as well as the human and fallible side of being a concerned scientist. Dr Farrar annotated his prose with his own emails and tweets, recreating a sense of real-time urgency he faced.
A large number of names appear in the 231 pages of text. Medical scientists, data analysts, physicians, epidemiologists, virologists, politicians, administrators and heads of organizations appear in a variety of roles – large and small. While Dr. Farrar presents each of them in the most interesting way possible, it can become difficult for the reader to relate to what each individual does, especially when first names are used liberally in the narrative. A subject as broad as this one also brings its share of acronyms, like SAGE, ONS, NERVTAG. It has helpfully included an index of key people, technical terms and acronyms mentioned in the book.
Virology and epidemiology apart, Peak is also a gold mine of practical wisdom; it is essentially a practical guide for those interested or involved in decision-making. Obstacles to decision making are elegantly described, and that would be one of the main takeaways from the book. For example, you can involve several bright and individually competent people in a project, but this doesn’t have to lead to the best possible result. The main reason is that effective decision making has little to do with the sum of the total academic achievements of a group of people.
Dr. Farrar demonstrates how individual perceptions of an evolving situation can vary for different individuals – depending on their personalities, past experiences, personal failures, individual preferences, the influence of peer groups and multiple types of prejudice. In particular, it highlights two forms of bias that corrupt decision-making during a crisis: the optimism bias and the confirmation bias.
He also cautions against intruding pseudoscience in the guise of science, referring specifically to the “Great Barrington statement” which has essentially been interpreted as “let the disease take its course.” It explains why the concept of “herd immunity”, while applicable to pathogens such as poliovirus, does not apply to the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Sadly, the price to pay for an initial delay in implementing even basic measures was a large number of deaths, and today the world knows Britain was not the only nation rich to have suffered the consequences of an early hesitation.
Although Britain has had the opportunity to witness the devastation caused by the pandemic in more than one country, writes Dr Farrar: “The UK suffered from its own long-standing disease: arrogance of exceptionalism ”
He notes how the WHO released a global strategy as early as February 4, 2020 and how countries that have implemented it have done well. Here he quotes Dr Maria Van Kerkhove from WHO: “There is no rocket science or secret or magic solution. These are proven public health actions. If you don’t take these steps and wait, it gets worse “
Although criticized for its lukewarm initial response, Britain has led the world in several other aspects of the pandemic. This includes the RECOVERY trial, which gave the world the world’s first scientifically proven life-saving treatment for Covid-19, namely dexamethasone. A considerable part of our knowledge of variants is due to the work of British scientists. Public Health England generates regular updates on the variants and effect of vaccines. Peak provides a rare insider perspective on how these elements came together for a common good.
Although the pandemic is far from over and knowledge is quickly becoming obsolete, Peak will undoubtedly hold its position as an early story frankly written on the subject – by a person of authority and skill. Dr Farrar’s book will thrill readers in general, policy makers as well as healthcare workers, all of whom have been involved or affected by the pandemic in one way or another.
Peak The virus against the people: the inside story
by Jeremy Farrar with Anjana Ahuja
253 pages; 480 rupees
Discover the book on Amazon
(Dr Rajeev Jayadevan is a medical specialist, public educator, author and member of the IMA National Working Group for the Coronavirus Pandemic)