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Christakis’ Book on COVID-19 Featured in the New York Times

November 17, 2020

NEW YORK – Apollo's Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live by Nicholas A. Christakis offers a riveting account of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic as it swept through the U.S. in 2020, and of how the recovery will unfold in the coming years. The book was featured in the New York Times on November 3, just before news broke of the developments in vaccines from Pfizer and more recently Moderna.

Drawing on momentous (yet dimly remembered) historical epidemics like the 1918 influenza pandemic, contemporary analyses, and cutting-edge research from a range of scientific disciplines, bestselling author, physician, sociologist, and public health expert Christakis explores what it means to live in a time of plague — an experience that is paradoxically uncommon to the vast majority of humans who are alive, yet deeply fundamental to our species.

Unleashing new divisions in our society as well as opportunities for cooperation, this 21st-century pandemic has upended our lives in ways that will test, but not vanquish, our already frayed collective culture. Featuring new, provocative arguments and vivid examples ranging across medicine, history, sociology, epidemiology, data science, and genetics, Apollo's Arrow envisions what happens when the great force of a deadly germ meets the enduring reality of our evolved social nature.

The title refers to the “arrows, representing plague, that Apollo rained down on the Greeks in Book 1 of the Iliad,” the Times reported, noting that the book “is a useful contribution to this initial wave of COVID books, sensible and comprehensive, intelligent and well sourced.”

Questions about where the virus originated, how it first infected people, and how it is evolving are still being examined by scientists who are “trapping wildlife in China, taking fecal samples and blood, culturing viruses, sequencing genomes from bats, pangolins and humans, and comparing them, as the clock ticks,” the Times reported.

Apollo’s Arrow is “a broad survey, not a deep dive, and sweeps across most of the signal topics: the inept early responses to the outbreak, first in China and then in the United States; the back story of modern pandemics and pandemic threats, notably the 1918 influenza and SARS in 2003; the social shutdowns, the mask issue and the tension between civil liberties and public health; the grief, fear and lies that make a pandemic emotionally as well as medically punishing; the social and economic changes, forced by this virus, that may become permanent; the general question of how plagues end and the specific, more speculative question of how this one might,” the Times reported.

Since “Christakis is a physician and sociologist, the co-author of an earlier book about social networks and how they shape lives, the co-author also of an influential paper on ‘social contagion theory’ and the co-director of the Institute for Network Science at Yale, one naturally expects that ‘network science’ might afford him special insight into COVID-19,” the Times reported, adding that “this book delivers on that expectation moderately, with a short section on the superspreader phenomenon and such disease-math variables as the basic reproduction number (the average number of persons infected by each infected person in a naïve population), the case fatality rate, the threshold for herd immunity and a few others that have become familiar in recent months.”

The book also includes dispersion “which is the variation in actual (not average) reproduction number from one infected person to another,” the Times reported, noting that “if some people cause few secondary infections and some cause many, the dispersion is high. The dispersion of COVID-19 is high.”

Christakis explains the high dispersion may be partially due to “some individuals simply shed more virus, or wash their hands less, or refuse to wear masks or cough more, another contributor to superspreading,” but there are also “certain people have many more social contacts than the average,”  the Times reported.

Christakis “calls those ‘popular people,’ and notes that they ‘are more likely to become infected themselves as well as more likely to infect numerous others,’” the Times reported, adding that “he illustrates this with some dots-and-lines network figures, showing who might have contact with whom.”

“Although superspreader events — in a choir, at a funeral, during a White House reception — seem alarming, the existence of high variation in reproduction number for COVID-19 may actually have an ameliorating effect,” the Times reported, noting that “according to Christakis, it may reduce the threshold for herd immunity,” since “‘popular people’ are more likely to get infected early in the pandemic, and most of them will survive, presumably with some immunity.”

“And if all the popular people became immune early, relatively more paths for the virus to spread through society would be cut off,” Christakis writes, the Times reported, adding that “that’s the good news, but because of its capacity to spread from asymptomatic cases and its relatively low case fatality rate, Christakis estimates, COVID-19 may still infect 40 percent of the global human population, and possibly as much as 60 percent, unless a vaccine becomes available soon.”

Christakis also examines the idea “that the virus may become less virulent,” noting that “one way a pandemic … can come to an end is that the virus mutates over a period of years to get much milder,” the Times reported.

Christakis offers the example of the “virus called OC43 is a human coronavirus that causes nothing more severe than the common cold,” the Times reported, noting that “in fact, along with one other coronavirus, it accounts for as much as 30 percent of all colds,” and “Christakis cites research suggesting that OC43 spilled into people, from cattle, around 1890, which happened to coincide with the beginning of a severe pandemic that was known as the ‘Russian flu,’ because its first major outbreak occurred in St. Petersburg, in December 1889.”

“This ‘flu’ swept out of Russia, across Europe, to the United States and much of the rest of the world, as fast as trains and ships could carry it, killing about a million people,” the Times reported, noting that Christakis “suggests that the 1890 event was a pandemic of OC43, a coronavirus passed to humans from some Russian cow.”

“After being among us for a century, this virus would have further evolved to be a mild pathogen that just causes the common cold today,” Christakis writes, the Times reported, noting that concerning COVID-19 mutating into a milder form, “it is still too early to know.”

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