Books you should read: “Pandemic” by Scott Sigler

In the time that I have been involved in medical science, few books that I have read have managed to get the science of infectious disease and epidemics right. (I was a lab assistant at age 16, so I’m talking about the last 20 years.) When I was in college, the movie Outbreak came out and greatly disappointed me. Sure, it was all good fun, but I’m the kind of person who looks at the minor details of the movie and maybe over-analyzes them too much. Outbreak was based on The Hot Zone by Richard Preston. The Hot Zone was a lot better at the finer details of what it takes to bring an epidemic — in this case a “zoonotic” or outbreak in animals that could “spill over” into the human population — under control using epidemiology, biology, and military capabilities. It wasn’t until I read Virus Hunter by CJ Peters that I got a much better idea of what it takes to respond to outbreaks of very scary diseases that are capable of wiping out the globe.

In fact, it was partly because of my correspondence with Dr. Peters that I decided to look into the Master of Public Health in Epidemiology program at GW. (Other influences came from the physicians I worked with at the lab, friends who said I had a knack for puzzles, and my own interest in infectious diseases.) Dr. Peters’ narrative of chasing Ebola from Reston, Virginia, to caves in Africa are amazing. If you want to get the real story of what it means to chase deadly pathogens and keep them under control, read Virus Hunter. If you want that same story romanticized and dramatized, read The Hot Zone. And if you want the same story to be turned into a mockery of real life, watch Outbreak.

I wouldn’t be attracted to a movie about an epidemic until Contagion. That movie hit all the right points on what would happen if a dangerous pathogen would come around to infect us and we had absolutely no defenses against it. (Like, zero defenses. No vaccines. No immunity. No drugs. Nothing.) Contagion does in a couple of hours what Outbreak would probably never do if it was a trilogy. From the initial response to the worldwide efforts to contain a zoonotic disease that has turned into a pandemic are all very accurate. I should know… I worked at the health department through the 2009 H1N1 Pandemic.

And quite a pandemic it was!

And quite a pandemic it was!

Once in a while, however, you want to have some fun and dream up of things that could happen, worst case scenarios that turn people like you (epidemiologists, like me) into heroes. For that kind of escapism, I tried reading several books, most of which fell into the trap of portraying the response as being too well-coordinated, or the infected people as mindless zombies. And what can I say about the endings? They were always Deus ex type of endings that felt like I had just wasted my time reading the fevered dreams of someone with no knowledge of what it means to have an epidemic going on around you.

Then I came across Infected by Scott Sigler. Mr. Sigler released Infected as a podcast that I downloaded from iTunes. From the very first chapter in the book, I was hooked. I was thrown into the world of “Scary” Perry Dawsey and the people trying to help him overcome an infection of extraterrestrial origin, an infection that could bring about the end of the world, though not via a pandemic. The pre-pandemic situation (an epidemic) would come in Contagious, the second novel in the trilogy. In that novel, Dawsey teams up with secret agents and scientists to stop a biological threat carried over from Infected. Like Infected, it’s a wild ride that keep you hooked from one chapter to the next. And the ending is quite explosive… So explosive that I was left with my mouth open.

The third novel in the trilogy is Pandemic, and Scott Sigler does it again. He nails down the science of how an epidemic could turn into a pandemic. (How the disease works is a whole other thing. It’s extraterrestrial, so you have to suspend your disbelief a little bit. But how it spreads and how we would respond is spot on.) He understands how a response would be coordinated and how easily it could be unwound. And he gets that there are no easy solutions once the whole world is affected by some terrible contagion. Again, it was a page-turner. Again, I was left with a deep sense of satisfaction at the end.

In Pandemic, the extraterrestrial object that brought the infection and then the contagion to Earth makes on last-ditch effort to annihilate all of us. The way it does it is quite brutal, and it takes a lot of science and a lot of effort for the heroes to come through. Sure, some luck is involved, but it’s not a Deus ex machina kind of luck. At least it didn’t feel that way to me. It really felt like I would have to go through all that if something that infectious came about. (I’m looking at the flu reports from the southern hemisphere, by the way. Something wicked this way comes.)

Yes, you have to suspend your disbelief a little when you see how the contagion is engineered by an alien intelligence. You might even think that you’ve fallen for a zombie narrative at a couple of points. But you keep reading and understand that Mr. Sigler knows his science, and his horror. You keep on reading (or listening if you get the audiobook) because you can’t believe that things have gotten so bad for the humanity presented to you in the book, and you just have to know what happens next.

I promise you that you will be a few chapters from the end and still not know if the heroes’ plans for saving the world will work. You wonder if the extraterrestrial intelligence’s plans have worked in erasing humans as a possible threat 100,000 years from now. And you will feel a degree of sadness as not everyone who has been around since Infected will make it.

If you want to see the world turned upside down in the extreme (in your mind’s eye), then I highly suggest Pandemic. Even if you didn’t start with Infected and just jump into the story at the third novel, you will still understand where it all came from and how it all could go so wrong. Trust me when I tell you that you will go back and read Infected and Contagion not because you want to know how it all started but because you want to be scared of what could happen. You’ll want to read more of Scott Sigler’s work.

Pandemic is epidemiologist-approved, as far as I’m concerned. Now, excuse me as I try to regain my composure before I facilitate a talk on the epidemiology and natural history of human viral infections.

  1. I hate you. I just got an audio book as a suggestion from a college friend, and here you give me another. Heading to my city library right now. (we’re old and downsizing, new books are only allowed on a temporary basis… only those required for reference are allowed!)

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  2. Thanks for the tips. Virus Hunter sounds really good; surprised I never heard of it.

    I’m reading John M. Barry’s The Great Infleunza right now, about the 1918 pandemic. Pretty harrowing, and, I think, it does a good job (with a few dramatic, chapter-end flourishes) creating a historical-epidemiologic account. The first 100 pages or so actually recount the transition of American medicine toward a science-based approach in the late 1800s, beginning with the founding the Johns Hopkins, all of which sets the stage for World War I and the Spanish flu years later.

    Curious about your thoughts if you’ve read it yourself.

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    1. I have not read it, but I’ll have to add it to my list. I saw a PBS special one day that had letters from people living through the pandemic. It was pretty well done.

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