It’s never too late to bend the arc

Also: PUB DAY!!!!

One of the more curious side effects of the pandemic has been on our relationship to time. In conversations with friends, I’ve often heard the same thing: a pandemic day feels like an entirely different amount of time compared to pre-pandemic days. Hours have stretched themselves to absurd lengths, days have become seasons, months years, and the years themselves; well, best not to even think about them, lengthened as they’ve been into stifled lives, accompanied by pulsing boredom and anxiety. As restrictions get lifted in many countries, it’s as if we have to re-learn what a day—a real day, out in the world—feels like again. It’s euphoric and scary and feels, maybe more than anything, like a gift from the universe.

But that experience of pandemic time isn’t the only reason it’s been on my mind. Early in the writing of The Invisible Siege: The Rise of Coronaviruses and the Search for a Cure (did I mention it is out today and you can order it here?), when most of my conversations, it seemed, were with virologists, I was struck by how limited my idea of time really was. More than that, I realized that there were two universes of time that I would have to contend with in the book: human time and viral time. Human time is, by this point, instinctive for us: we’ve trained our internal clocks to the rising and setting sun, and even have a vague awareness of how long a decade or century might be. But viral time…that’s something else entirely.

Coronaviruses, it turns out, replicate every three minutes, an absurdly short cycle that compresses what we think of life down to the blink of an eye. But trying to understand a virus through the strange dance of a single virion is like trying to understand what makes a beach by looking at a single grain of sand: everything important is obscured. Viral time isn’t just about a three-minute replication cycle. It’s about the long churning evolution, spurred on by mutations that accrue in each new virion, that happens over hundreds, thousands, and millions of years. And that’s what we’ve been contending with over this entire pandemic: a virus that represents, by some estimates, the product of 300 million years of evolution.

Earth 300 million years ago. No humans, but lots of coronaviruses.

Yes; you read that right. And for those of you up on your human evolution, you’ll know that homo sapiens, our beloved species, only emerged 300,000 years ago. Coronaviruses didn’t arise to meddle with humanity. Our species was born into a coronavirus world. This family of viruses, the Coronaviridae, had been preying on humanity’s ancestors for hundreds of millions of years before our species evolved. No wonder, then, that coronaviruses are so expertly attuned to our biology: they had time—eons of viral time—to practice. But if there’s anything that this pandemic has taught us, it’s that our species has been able to make up the coronavirus’s running head start to the point that the end of this battle is in sight.

Care to spend some of your human time with a book?

There’s another reason I’ve been thinking so much about time, one that hits much closer to home. If you’ve been reading these newsletters, you probably know that today is publication day for The Invisible Siege: The Rise of Coronaviruses and the Search for a Cure. And if you’ve been enjoying them, please click on the link above and get yourself a copy of the book. Reviewers have so far described it as “page-turning,” (Publishers Weekly) and replete with “vivid storytelling” (David George Haskell, author of The Forest Unseen). Richard Preston, one of my literary heroes and the author of bestselling book The Hot Zone wrote, “I learned so much that I didn’t know before—above all, I met the subtle warriors of the laboratory who are working to save all of us from the horror of new pandemics.” That was pretty nice.

If you like reading and you’re interested in an optimistic counter-narrative about what went right before and during the pandemic (and you’ve come this far, so evidently you do), then please consider buying a copy of the book.

If you want to help with getting the word out, the absolute best things you can do is order the book, post about it online, and when you read it and love it, write a review on Amazon, Goodreads, or your personal diary (I’ll know). It’s no secret that selling books is hard. So let me be the first to say: thank you!  

Meanwhile, in Dan Werb news…

(Virtual) book launch!!!! Wednesday March 9th @ 4pm PST / 7pm EST!

I’m so thrilled to be launching the book at Warwick’s, a gem of a bookstore in San Diego/La Jolla. I had an amazing time with the City of Omens launch in 2019 and looking forward to returning. I’m also thrilled to have Davey Smith joining me. Davey is the head of Infectious Diseases at the University of California San Diego, an Operation Warp Speed scientist who tangled with Trump, and one of the main characters profiled in The Invisible Siege.

RSVP at this link – I can’t wait to see you there!

RSVP for the launch here:

Q&A about The Invisible Siege

I did a short Q&A about The Invisible Siege that you can check out here; it covers some of the themes explored in the book, including why I dedicated it to “those who were not saved”.

Op-Ed on Open Science

Last weekend, I also published an op-ed in the Globe & Mail about open science, a model of discovery that seeks to create cures based on global need, rather than on the profit motive. The op-ed delves into some of the missed opportunities for open science before the pandemic, and why it’s more needed now than ever.


There’s also going to be an excerpt of the book going live later today – check my twitter feed for updates.

And, as always, if you enjoyed this newsletter and haven’t yet, please consider subscribing and telling people in your life that you think would enjoy it.

See you next time, when I’ll cover the lessons—right and wrong—that we’ve learned through this pandemic, and how we can develop a foundation for scientific discovery that anticipates that last great mystery: the future.

City of Omens

My first book.

Bloomsbury US | June 4, 2019

The cover. (The full version of the book comes with pages inside.)

I wrote a book with the help of Ben Hyman, my editor at Bloomsbury, about what I saw in Tijuana since starting to work down there in 2013. My relationship with the city is really of an outsider looking in, and I’ll never claim to know the place like a true Tijuanensis. But I did learn many things about the place. And if you’re looking for stories about what it means to be American, Tijuana – though just on the wrong side of the U.S. border wall – is the best place I’ve found to to explain how America works.

I say ‘wrong side’ only because that’s the city’s reputation. Tijuana and San Diego (the city on the other side of the wall) make up a single binational economic region that, beyond commerce, is deeply culturally linked. If you ask me (with apologies to my friends in SD), Tijuana is far and away the more interesting of the two cities. If you want to know where to look for innovation and and entrepreneurialism, and for a complicated kind of love of America, go to TJ.

Tijuana is like so much of the rest of North America: a place where migrants have come to seek a better life. It’s so close to the U.S.-Mexico border wall, which is as high as 18 feet in some places, that the wall never seems too far away. The strange twist of the city, though, is that for many of the people seeking a better life by coming here, Tijuana is a useful way station before the final journey.

That’s the prevailing narrative, at least: Tijuana is a place people want to leave. What I discovered writing this book, though, is that Tijuana has been shaped much more by the people seeking to enter than those trying to find their way out. Since its founding in the late 19th century, Tijuana was a convenient place for tourists–mostly Americans–to get what they could not get at home. Gambling (which was illegal in California until the middle of the 20th century) and sex work could both be had in TJ. Nowadays, you can gamble anywhere, of course. But Tijuana still has a regional monopoly on sex work and has become one of North America’s most important drug trafficking hubs.

For that last reason, it’s also become a key battleground for Mexico-based cartels who, after the launch of the U.S.-Mexico “Merida Initiative” in 2008, engaged in what amounted to a civil war against the Mexican state. The Merida Initiative was a roughly two billion dollar program launched by the George W. Bush Administration that saw the U.S. support the Mexican military’s assault on cartels, after a century-old piece between cartels and the state had crumbled. It didn’t – and still hasn’t – ended well. And few cities in Mexico have experienced more death and destruction from what’s been dubbed the ‘Mexican War on Drugs’ than Tijuana.

City of Omens is a book about that drug war. It’s also about how disposable the lives of women who sell sex (mostly to members of the U.S. navy) have become. And it’s an attempt at tracing the history of the city back to its origins in order to understand the stories of the women that live there.

A few years removed from writing it, I like the book. It got some critical love and was a finalist for some cool awards. I hope you like it (and buy it!) too.

Epidemic in the Borderland

RIP Believer Mag :((((

The Believer | October 1st, 2016

Oh man. Just heard the news that The Believer Mag – one of the most beautifully designed, smartest, and coolest literary magazines out there – is closing its doors. Such a sad day. I remember getting hooked on an interview with Killer Mike about his support for Black-owned businesses in Atlanta and that was that.

The Believer was a great place for long-form in-depth pieces that straddled journalism and what you would call ‘upmarket non-fiction’ (that’s what one of my editor called writing that doesn’t necessarily sell well but feels good to publish). ‘Epidemic in the Borderland’ fell neatly into that category. It’s half-journalism, half-science writing, and it’s about people and a place–Tijuanenses (Tijuana residents) working in the sex trade and living in the shadow of the border in the midst of a cartel war–that is mostly just the butt of crude jokes. I spent five years doing field research in Tijuana interviewing female sex workers, people who inject drugs, frontline harm reduction workers, scientists, police, and whoever else I could talk to about what was going on. The story is a complex one, with reverberations at every single level you choose to look at it from: the local red light district, the city itself, the border wall’s imposition on the city, the 100,000 people who cross back and forth between Tijuana and San Diego every day, the broader relationship between Mexico and the U.S., and the international flow of consumer goods and illegal drugs that pass through Tijuana daily. It’s all there. Hope you like it…and hopefully the Believer website stays up!

The Fix

A new way of thinking about the intractable problem of injection drug use

The Walrus | August 5, 2016

The Fix was my first attempt at writing about my scientific research for a popular publication. I had written a fair bit on issues around drug addiction when I was a freelance journalist, but when I started writing The Fix, it turned out that it was a lot easier explaining other people’s ideas compared to my own. My editor Amy Macfarlane was friendly but relentless in pushing me to think harder about the implications of the work I was describing. I was doing my PhD when I wrote the article, and I had had it bludgeoned into my head that scientific findings should always be written about with great caution. Under Amy’s editorial guidance, The Fix ended up being a kind of trial balloon for some big scientific ideas I had been thinking about but had been too cautious (scared?) to advance into the world (it also won a National Magazine Award in Canada, which was wonderful). Those ideas are now the basis of my research work on injection drug use prevention which you can learn about here:

In the meantime, enjoy The Fix…

Link to Article