‘Virology’ ponders society’s relationship with viruses

In a collection of wide-ranging essays, a microbiologist reflects on the pandemic and more

People wearing masks in New York City

In a new collection of essays, microbiologist Joseph Osmundson, a New Yorker, writes on many topics, including his COVID-19 “pod” and the life changes he and his pod mates experienced during the pandemic.

Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images

Joseph Osmundson
W.W. Norton & Co., $16.95

As a journalist covering COVID-19, I’ve had a front-row seat to the pandemic. I’ve been overwhelmed with despair over the death and suffering. I’ve been numb, trying to keep up with the deluge of COVID-19 studies. One balm has been the understanding of colleagues who also report on COVID-19.

I found solace too in Virology, microbiologist Joseph Osmundson’s book of 11 wide-ranging essays, in which he writes of the pandemic and calls for “a new rhetoric of care.” Osmundson includes journal entries from the pandemic, and some of his experi­ences are similar to mine. He dreams he’s at a gathering where no one is masked. He too felt the “density” of the pandemic: “Emotionally dense, with loss and struggle and even some­times joy,” he writes. “Scientifically dense, with papers and pre-prints out every day that need reading and some analysis.”

Osmundson doesn’t just focus on the coronavirus. He jumps from other viruses and the immune system to illness and metaphors for illness, to sex and HIV, to archiving history and whose stories get told. Parts of the book feel like an anthology, with quotes from many writers who have weighed in on these topics. Parts are a call to care for everyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, wealth or who one loves.

Overall, Osmundson questions how society thinks about viruses. “Viruses … are not evil, they don’t invade. They just are,” he writes. “The meaning we give a virus affects how we live with it.” When we describe viruses as enemies and illness as a war, it “assumes the necessity of casualties.” He argues instead to focus resources on caring for one another.

Born in the early 1980s, Osmundson, a gay man, is acutely aware of the messages that come with viruses. “Our generation of gay men came after the plague,” he writes. “HIV didn’t just kill bodies. It killed a type of sex as well, a type of pleasure.” But new therapies have saved lives and altered perceptions. Pre-exposure prophylaxis can prevent infection, while treatment can render HIV untransmissible (SN: 11/15/19). These advances changed our relationship with the virus, Osmundson writes. “I used to think that HIV would make it harder to find love and sex. Now we know that HIV-positive and undetectable is safe. It’s sexy.”

But the biomedicine that can change our relationship with viruses has not been wielded equitably, Osmundson observes. He returns throughout the book to our common humanity. “That fact of all our bodies, vulnerable together, necessitates mutual care.”

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Aimee Cunningham is the biomedical writer. She has a master’s degree in science journalism from New York University.

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