The Invisible Siege
- By Dan Werb
- 384 pp.
- Reviewed by Michael Causey
- April 22, 2023
Meet the warriors trying to save us from the next pandemic — and ourselves.
“Love your mask,” the friendly Lost Sock Roasters barista says to me as I scan the menu on the wall. “If you are dining in this morning, I’ll need proof of vaccination.”
With a red Washington Nationals mask dutifully covering my nose and mouth, I hand her my official Covid-19 Vaccination Record Card from the CDC, protected by the special plastic holder my dad got me after he received his first shot. I’m team Pfizer; he’s Johnson & Johnson.
After politely checking my driver’s license to make certain it matches my CDC card, the barista happily takes my order. Signs around the coffeeshop remind us to wear our masks except when eating or drinking.
I take my seat, socially distanced from other patrons, and finish the final pages of Dan Werb’s excellent, sobering history of covid-19, The Invisible Siege, showing how our fragile world was upended in ways big and small beginning in early 2020.
It’s April 2022 when I finish Werb’s book, and the worst of the pandemic appears to be behind us. However, the work is a powerful reminder of how likely it is the world will be hit again with a pandemic, while also warning a weary population that covid-19 isn’t necessarily done with us yet, either.
In this thoughtful, well-researched autopsy, if you will, of the world’s response to covid-19 and earlier pandemics, Werb finds reason for hope even as he points out where politics, racism, and just plain old mistakes made the situation worse.
With an historian’s eye, the author suggests it was Americans’ arrogance during the 2002 SARS epidemic that set the stage for our sometimes-fumbling response to covid-19.
“It was the failure of SARS to gain a foothold in the United States, and the assumption that American science would always find an answer, that set the conditions for a pandemic to take hold,” he writes. “The original trauma of SARS was never visited upon the United States…the country remained as vulnerable as ever while believing itself ready for whatever monstrosity nature next produced. It was hubris of the highest order.”
Werb also points a finger at the racist attitude undermining practical, scientific practices as covid-19 made its way toward the U.S. While he doesn’t do an inordinate amount of Trump bashing, Werb notes that the former president’s anti-Chinese rhetoric in the early days of the pandemic was generally misleading and counterproductive. Trump’s and others’ knee-jerk criticisms of China, generally resting on little to no fact, served to “make it more difficult to get information from China that might be useful in saving lives,” a clinical researcher tells Werb.
And while the clinical-trial industry produced effective vaccines in record time that prevented covid-19 mortality from reaching black-death proportions, Werb points to a more serious underlying challenge for us homo sapiens going forward:
“The pandemic threat looms over our species as we burrow ever deeper into places in which we don’t belong. The only way to truly blunt the threat of future pandemics is for humanity to retrench itself from the grim task of salting the earth.”
I don’t know Werb and so can’t speak for him, but I suspect he’s like me in doubting humans can check their biological drive to explore, spread, and consume. Man’s reach must exceed his grasp, and all that jazz.
And so, our fate may ultimately rest in the hands of clinical researchers, many of whom are heroes in Werb’s book. These dedicated scientists generally toiling in obscurity (unless there’s a crisis) and battling for funds in a capitalistic healthcare system while being hemmed in by opportunistic politicians and others? It’s their work that may one day save us from ourselves.
[Editor's note: This review originally ran in 2022.]
Michael Causey is editor-in-chief of the Association of Clinical Research Professionals. The opinions here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of ACRP.