Skip to Main Content


The Scientific Race to Defeat a Deadly Virus


About The Book

National Book Award Finalist

The story of the worldwide scientific quest to decipher the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, trace its source, and make possible the vaccines to fight the Covid-19 pandemic.

Breathless is the story 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.

Breathless takes you inside the frantic international effort to understand and control SARS-CoV-2 as if we were peering over the shoulders of the brilliant scientists who led the chase.

About The Author

Photograph by Louise Johns

David Quammen’s books include Breathless, The Tangled TreeThe Song of the DodoThe Reluctant Mr. Darwin, and Spillover, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and recipient of the Premio Letterario Merck, in Rome. 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 two 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 4, 2022)
  • Length: 416 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982164386

Browse Related Books

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."


“An authoritative new history of Covid-19 and its predecessors. . . . [Quammen] constructs a masterful account of viral evolution culminating in Covid-19. . . . Unsettling global health news brilliantly delivered by an expert.”

– Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"A masterful scientific detective story. . . . Quammen delivers a demanding and essential book about COVID-19."

– Booklist (starred review)

"Science journalist Quammen recounts in page-turning detail the scientific response to the Covid-19 pandemic. . . . A must-read for anyone looking to get a better handle on the pandemic so far."

– Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Resources and Downloads

High Resolution Images

More books from this author: David Quammen