“Evolution, ecology and pandemics”, or Darwin’s revenge on Pasteur

The book. Le Seuil had the good idea to bring out in pocket a book published in 2016, precious in these times of pandemic. The publication is accompanied by a new chapter and above all by an incisive afterword where the author, Samuel Alizon, a biologist very involved in the analysis of viral genomes and the modeling of the epidemic, delivers his thoughts on the current crisis. It is particularly a question of the French weaknesses of the health policy, which would privilege the care rather than the prevention, and of the research policy, qualified as“Utilitarian”. In support of these criticisms, the author recalls that the Covid-19 happened when there were protests from staff at the hospital and demonstrations by researchers opposed to a budget programming law.

Above all, in the heart of the book, he deploys his teaching skills on the functioning of parasites with a very Darwinian approach, which claims to take into account the evolution of populations, hosts such as viruses or bacteria. The biologist begins by recalling the three key concepts of evolution – variability, heritability and selectivity – to explain the mechanisms of epidemics, the appearance of resistance, the origin of pandemics, their modeling… Let’s jump from bacteria to virus, from AIDS to Ebola, including cancer, sickle cell disease and myxomatosis.

Dialogue between biologies

The first chapter justifies this particular look because the specialist considers that current medicine is quite hemiplegic, turned towards individual molecular biology mechanisms rather than towards the study of the effects of evolution on populations. It would be Pasteur’s victory over Darwin. But for the author it is urgent to make these two biologies dialogue.

The following chapters provide ample evidence of the contribution of evolution to the understanding of epidemics. Surprises and counterintuitive conclusions are not uncommon. Many questions remain unanswered, the main one being “why are parasites killing us?” “. Or plunge into perplexity: “Are males the parasites of females? “

The chapter on treatments, while the vaccination campaign against Covid-19 is slowly starting in France, underlines the complexity of the subject. Phage therapy, antimicrobial peptides, transgenic mosquitoes have pros and cons. On vaccines, which put pressure on the environment of the virus, the biologist predicts that future more virulent strains will emerge – the British variant is itself more contagious – at the risk of threatening unvaccinated people.

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