Fourth Estate will publish a book looking into how the first detected outbreak of coronavirus started in Wuhan, written by Canadian scientist Dr Alina Chan and science writer Matt Ridley.
The book, Viral: The Search for the Origin of Covid-19, will be published in November 2021. Publishing director Louise Haines acquired UK and Commonwealth rights, excluding Canada, from Georgina Capel Associates.
Viral explores both the possibility that the virus infected humans in a natural encounter, in a rural village or food market, and the possibility that it infected a researcher during fieldwork or during an experiment in a laboratory.
The publisher described the book as "the greatest whodunnit mystery of the century", adding: "We know that the natural reservoir of SARS-related coronaviruses is in bats, but we do not how, where, and when SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for Covid-19, acquired the ability to begin infecting people. The public debate about this topic changed dramatically in May 2021, with the hypothesis that the virus first infected laboratory scientists in Wuhan suddenly going from a ‘debunked conspiracy theory’ to one of two main possibilities being investigated by US intelligence at President Joe Biden’s behest."
Fourth Estate said Dr Chan, of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, "has gained recognition as a leading voice in analysing the origin of Covid-19, having been drawn into the topic by her own observation of the strange lack of rapid genetic adaptation of the virus in its human host during the early months of the pandemic". It added: "The book explores every twist and turn in the detective work done by professional scientists and amateur internet sleuths to understand exactly what happened in Wuhan in 2019 and before" describing the collection as "a gripping narrative, set in the caves and mineshafts, food markets and wildlife smugglers’ stores, laboratories and databases of China and elsewhere around the world".
Chan said: "When Matt proposed a collaboration on a book chronicling the search for the origin of Covid-19, I knew that we had to write it. As a towering figure in the world of science writing [Ridley] and [Chan], a scientist working at the cutting-edge of genetic engineering, we have both been meticulously following and contributing to the search for the origin for more than a year. We wanted to make sure that the story is properly told and becomes canon."
Ridley added: "This has turned out to be one of the most extraordinary writing projects of my career, combining genetics and zoology with mystery and drama. To work alongside a scientist of the integrity and insightfulness of Alina on a topic of huge importance for the whole world has been fascinating."