This text presents the story of the 1918 flu epidemic and discusses current scientific efforts to isolate the particular strain that was so virulent, in order to prevent the same tragedy from striking again. According to researchers, "It's not a question of if. It's a matter of when".
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Pete Davies estimates that between 20 and 40 million people died from the wave of influenza known as the Spanish Lady in 1918. A similar pandemic today could kill up to 100 million, or 1 in 60 of the world's population. Scientists may squabble over theory, but one thing they agree on is that it's not a question of "if", but "when" it happens again. This may sound like a sensationalist X-files-ish apocalyptic vision, but it's enough to bring you out in a sweat. Davies chooses to combine three themes: the history of the 1918 pandemic, the search for the virus that caused it and the current scientific research being undertaken. The saddest moments of a book of jagged tones occur when relating the details of the 1918 cataclysm. Ghostly and lyrical are the voices emanating from eyewitnesses, survivors and even official documents, of a time that seemed too cruel for words. And yet, terrible as it was, it couldn't match what was happening on the Western Front. The section with which Davies' writing skills seem most aligned describes an international team going to Norway to retrieve soft tissue from bodies buried in the frozen waste. His black humour is as dry as the wintry breeze as he observes the infighting and frostbitten egos that characterise science as much as any other walk of life. This is then nicely contrasted with the story of Johan Hultin, a lone 73- year-old Swede who goes to Alaska, digs up bodies with a shovel and then sends tissue samples to a laboratory that, sure enough, isolates the virus. Entertaining and invigorating stuff. The final theme, of the race to win the pharmaceutical war, is altogether more depressing, as the commercial giants of that world strive to make a bigger killing than any virus, with an array of DIY flu kits and "plug" drugs. Despite provoking the occasional suspicion that the ends don't quite justify the means, Davies displays considerable aplomb in the weaving of his "faction", and his well-researched sleuthing combines with an infectious enthusiasm to translate arcane science into an accessible and startling thriller that's definitely not to be sneezed at, but perhaps should be kept away from hypochondriacs. --David Vincent
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