Separating fact from fiction: Anirban Mahapatra on writing a book about COVID-19, challenges of pandemic scholarship

In the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, when we were drowning in seemingly endless information about the sheer number of cases, death rates, the ways in which the virus does — and doesn’t — spread, people felt a tangible sense of exhaustion about simply keeping up with the news. The impulse to stay away from statistics and disappointing headlines about the shortage of vaccines and hospital beds, was only understandable, and to a certain extent, perhaps even necessary. People turned to literature: some sought comfort, some looked out for predictable plot lines to combat the unpredictability of everyday life, and some others wanted an escape.

Imagine my surprise then when a year later, the book that did give me a sense of calm was a non-fiction work about the pandemic itself. COVID-19: Separating Fact from Fiction, by Anirban Mahapatra, manages to achieve this effect through its lucid explanation of how viruses work, how SARS-CoV-2 is different from other viruses, and the way in which humanity has dealt with the pandemic thus far. By documenting the key events of the first few months following March 2020, the book also serves as a history of the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

True to its name, vast portions of the book are committed to dispelling misinformation, including addressing the question whether the virus was genetically engineered (“…We do not need to resort to this theory of deliberate genetic engineering, when a simpler natural one exists”). Mahapatra presents truths which will cause lay readers to pause (“It may come as a surprise to many people that genetically we’re part virus ourselves”) and uses familiar metaphors to explain scientific concepts: proofreading enzymes are compared to an autocorrect feature, the process of making copies of genetic material is compared to a mechanical loom.

Mahapatra says he was compelled to write this book because he noticed a vacuum of information in the early months of the pandemic. Additionally, he felt this was an opportunity to provide practical information about how people can protect themselves, and how the COVID-19 vaccines were developed and how they work. “As someone trained as a scientist and engaged in the dissemination of scientific information professionally, my guiding principle from the start has been that a book that seeks to contextualise a pandemic and dispel misinformation has to be rooted in science,” he explains.

The author does, however, frequently comment on the social reality brought about by the pandemic, asking questions such as, Who pays for a vaccine created with significant public research funding? “Reading scientific articles every day provided one perspective. Reading news stories added another complementary one. No book on the pandemic is complete without both scientific and social approaches,” Mahapatra says.

Challenges abound while writing a book on a pandemic, and one of the biggest is the very real possibility that the constant flow of new information renders one's work outdated, or of diminished value. Mahapatra calls this — and the associated fear — the single biggest challenge with writing about a life-altering event in real time. “The traditional approach to writing is to gather information in a research-phase and then to synthesise and analyse that information in a separate writing-phase. That approach does not work during a pandemic. When information changes rapidly, both research and writing have to occur simultaneously. I wrote many drafts, many more than I’d like to admit. Those who reviewed drafts including my editors can attest to the fact that my primary objective was to ensure accuracy,” he says.

As for the value of one’s work diminishing over time, Mahapatra says that this is an aspect of scholarship that people in science come to terms with early on — as early as their first paper or thesis. “Stuff gets old fast. We are all resigned to it. Paradoxically, I think this is what makes science so exciting. It isn’t static,” he says.

From the perspective of science communication, this project seems especially interesting — here is a subject that people are constantly reading up about, while also depending on experts for clarity and elaboration. If one is writing a whole book about the subject, then offering something new is of essence.

Was ensuring that the scientific concepts are accessible a concern? Mahapatra says this concern led to a deeper question in his mind: why is a book on the subject even necessary?

“I did not want to write a book for researchers: after a year, there are over 1,00,000 published articles and reviews on COVID-19 that we can access. I wanted to write an approachable book that anyone with a keen interest could understand, not a monograph. To write such a book requires setting aside assumptions on what the reader already knows. In the end, I cut out a lot of material. This book is a starting point. It is extensively referenced, so anyone can go to the original sources to dive deeper,” he says.

When it comes to research, it can be argued that taking a certain approach or looking at a subject through a specific lens can constitute bias, because it involves engaging with information with a focused, and thereby 'limited', scope. It also entails the choice to include some information over other details, for the sake of specificity. And yet, imagining a book rooted in science that is not objective, or rather coloured by bias of some sort, seems impossible. Mahapatra is of the opinion that for a book such as this one, complete objectivity is neither possible, nor warranted. “A mere collection of facts would make for a boring book. We create our own narratives. In the first few paragraphs of the book, I mention that our experience and remembrance of the pandemic will be coloured by our backgrounds and our dispositions. That said, I don’t think an important topic that has implications on health is a place for independent theories. That would be contrary to the spirit of the book and its title,” he explains.

“Definitive answers are often comforting, but we must also be comfortable with uncertainty,” he adds.

Anirban Mahapatra. Photograph courtesy of Penguin India

In one of the early chapters, Mahapatra talks about how the pre-existing tools to deal with pandemics, such as contact tracing and patient isolation, are few and limited. But he is optimistic about these tools expanding in the years to come. “Innovation and resources are applied to a problem only when it becomes acute. This applies to all big problems facing humanity today, not just the current pandemic, but also to climate change, pollution, habitat destruction, and the re-emergence of antibiotic-resistant diseases. We had some great successes with effective vaccines developed in record time with new platforms. I see this continuing into the future. The drugs we have for this pandemic right now were developed for other diseases of the past. It only makes sense to build up a medicine cabinet of other drugs for other RNA viruses, waiting to infect us in the future.”

Mahapatra dedicates an entire chapter to drawing parallels with previous pandemics, constantly referring to other infectious diseases and RNA viruses. How important are time-based comparisons to such scholarship? And is not paying heed to the past part of the reason why we are here, in the first place?

“I think I could answer either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to these questions and be somewhat correct. It is a matter of finding what we seek, of confirming biases. On the one hand, this is not a Black Swan event: even a completely new virus is not completely unknown because we have over a century of studying microbes. We know about respiratory diseases. We can compare with other RNA viruses. On the other hand, pandemics are like snowflakes in that no two are completely alike,” he says, adding that comparisons with prior pandemics will only take us so far.

He employs the example of the 1918-19 influenza pandemic, a time when modern diagnostic tests didn’t exist and no one had adequate awareness about viruses. “Still, many of the measures such as the wearing of masks, cleaning surfaces, isolating the sick, and shutting down schools and businesses during outbreaks stem from prior pandemics,” he explains.

The answer to whether the world could have predicted the occurrence of a pandemic like COVID-19, in Mahapatra’s estimation, is unequivocally yes. “Many experts did predict such a pandemic. And our response could’ve been better. In fact, I mention in my book that some countries that had prior experience with SARS, have (so far) done relatively well,” he says.

In the context of the future, Mahapatra covers many issues, from studying the impact of COVID-19, to adapting to a new world, to being prepared for the next big pandemic. We are facing the first disease X of the century, he writes early on in the book.

After humanity overcomes the pandemic, Mahapatra advocates that we move forward with cautious optimism. “We should learn from this collective experience to build up healthcare and infectious diseases infrastructure, train more people, ensure supply-chains for drugs and vaccines remain viable in a crisis, and inculcate critical thinking,” he says.

Behind holistic, rigorous scholarship is a human face — one that is not immune to fear or anxiety, which could increase manifold because of a greater awareness about both pandemics and coronaviruses. At different points in time, depending on whether the people close to him were oblivious or alarmed, Mahapatra urged caution or offered reassurance. Sometimes, he asked them to be patient. “I don’t think it has anything to do with me; I think having access to reliable information allows for perspective that is more long-term. I am not reacting to the latest tweet on mutants or case-loads… But personally, I had experienced nothing like this pandemic. I worried for my family and friends. Some fear is always good, especially if it is rooted in reality. Fear is a vaccine against complacency,” he says.