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The Scientific Race to Defeat a Deadly Virus


About The Book

National Book Award finalist Breathless tells the story of the worldwide scientific race to decipher the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, trace its source, and make possible the vaccines to fight the Covid-19 pandemic—a “luminous, passionate account of the defining crisis of our time” (The New York Times).

Breathless is a “gripping” (The Atlantic) but “clear-eyed analysis” (Time) of SARs-CoV-2 and its fierce journey through the human population, as seen by the scientists who study its origin, its ever-changing nature, and its capacity to kill us. David Quammen expertly shows how strange new viruses emerge from animals into humans as we disrupt wild ecosystems and how those viruses adapt to their human hosts, sometimes causing global catastrophe. He explains why this coronavirus will probably be a “forever virus,” destined to circulate among humans and bedevil us endlessly, in one variant form or another. As scientists labor to catch it, comprehend it, and control it, with their high-tech tools and methods, the virus finds ways of escape.

Based on interviews with nearly one hundred scientists, including leading virologists in China and around the world, Quammen explains that:
-Infectious disease experts saw this pandemic coming
-Some scientists, for more than two decades, warned that “the next big one” would be caused by a changeable new virus—very possibly a coronavirus—but such warnings were ignored for political or economic reasons
-The precise origins of this virus may not be known for years, but some clues are compelling, and some suppositions can be dismissed
-And much more

Written by “one of our finest explainers of the natural world for decades” (Chicago Tribune), This “compelling and terrifying” (The New York Times) account is an unparalleled look inside the frantic international race to understand and control SARS-CoV-2—and what it might mean for the next potential global health crisis.

About The Author

Photograph by Louise Johns

David Quammen’s books include BreathlessThe Tangled TreeThe Song of the DodoThe Reluctant Mr. Darwin, and Spillover. He has written for The New YorkerHarper’s Magazine, The AtlanticNational Geographic, and Outside, among other magazines, and is a three-time winner of the National Magazine Award. Quammen shares a home in Bozeman, Montana, with his wife, Betsy Gaines Quammen, author of American Zion, and with three Russian wolfhounds, a cross-eyed cat, and a rescue python. Visit him at

Why We Love It

“We are overwhelmed by news about the coronavirus every day: What are the latest regulations regarding masks; where are infections spiking or diminishing; what are the regulations for travel; how effective are the vaccines; is the latest variant more dangerous than earlier ones; etc.

We have a great deal of information, but not enough knowledge. Breathless explains the basic science of the coronavirus in a way we can understand. It shows how scientists all over the world mobilized and communicated to learn how the virus works, making it possible to develop vaccines faster than has ever been done before. Breathless is a portrait of science—and scientists—in action during a time of crisis.

If you want to understand these viruses—which will be with us for the rest of our lives—this is the book to read. And if you want to appreciate the dedication, the brilliance, and the internationalism of the scientific community as it races to save lives, this is also the book to read.”

—Bob B., VP, Executive Editor, on Breathless

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (October 17, 2023)
  • Length: 448 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982164379

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Raves and Reviews

"Gripping. . . . Breathless, like the virus it depicts, is a dramatic culmination of an idea that Quammen introduced many of us to in Spillover: that the science story of viral ecology could very easily become the biggest story on planet Earth."

– Joshua Sokol, The Atlantic

"Compelling and terrifying. . . . A luminous, passionate account of the defining crisis of our time."

– Michael Sims, The New York Times

“Three years into the pandemic, Mr. Quammen, a prolific science journalist and author, uncovers all sorts of details about the efforts to investigate the spread of Covid and discern the features that made it so menacing. . . . An engagingly written chronicle of scientific inquiry.”

– Scott Gottlieb, The Wall Street Journal

Breathless presents the sweeping scientific story of the pandemic, connecting puzzle pieces that at the time had felt so out of place.”

– Erin Garcia de Jesús, Science News

"A supernova among science journalists and lauded author of The Song of the Dodo and Spillover now tackles the most sprawling news story on the planet, the Covid-19 pandemic. . . . Quammen’s narrative finesse is peerless as he meticulously dissects the waves of mass infections, Wuhan to Alpha to Delta to Omicron."


Breathless is as close to authoritative history — from the virus’s origins to vaccines and variants — as we have, told through scientists involved, and the signature ease of Quammen’s prose. It reads like a thriller in real-time."

– Chicago Tribune

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