How did an immunodeficiency virus spill from one chimpanzee and go on to kill almost 40 million people worldwide? This is the question that ‘The chimp and the river’ attempts to tackle using a mixture of historical events, scientific breakthroughs and artistic licence. Not only does the book tell the story of HIV, it also explains how we know it — how scientists discovered that the virus existed, how it began in apes and how it spread.
The book is drawn from Quammen’s 2012 book ‘Spillover’. It interweaves the author’s own travels through Africa, “the cradle of AIDS” (he has a wonderful turn-of-phrase), with those of the “cut hunter” and “the voyager” — characters vital to the early acquisition and transport of HIV — and the work of pioneering scientists.
At times, the genomic science can be complex, particularly when it comes to the nitty gritty of different strains of the virus in various species of monkey and ape — we discover that simian immunodeficiency has been found in African green monkeys, Asian macaques, sooty mangabeys, chimpanzees and others.
However, Quammen manages to be coherent without being patronising. A particular highlight is when, after wading through the research that explains how scientists discovered that HIV is a zoonosis and how it spilled over from primates, the author dramatically reveals the consequences of this. “In other words, HIV hasn’t happened to humanity just once. It has happened at least a dozen times.”
Those with an interest in HIV and AIDS will find this a fascinating read. Although we all know how this tragic tale unfolds, the story is compelling, especially when Quammen narrates the journey of the virus to the first hunter to acquire it during a fight with a chimpanzee, to the viral explosion “like an infectious starburst” from Leopoldville in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Even people with knowledge of the origin of the virus may encounter a few surprises.
‘The chimp and the river’, by David Quammen. Pp176 US$13.95. New York: W W Norton & Company; 2015. ISBN 978 0 393 35084 5