The Chimp and The River: The Origin Story of HIV

When I think of the prototypical infectious disease -- the one that illustrates everything perfectly and makes all the "right" moves -- HIV is what always comes to mind. This prolific killer emerged and sparked a pandemic that killed 40 million humans to date. Like any good serial killer, the origin story is important and fascinating not just because it gives us a morbid pleasure to see the first forays the virus made into killing but it underscores the essentials of how any emerging infectious disease establishes itself, transitioning from epidemic to endemic.

I have read many book on different facets of HIV and, for the most part, have found value in all of them. The latest HIV book I read, The Chimp and The River: How AIDS Emerged from an African Forest by David Quammen, wasn't a "new" book in the strict sense but an adaptation of a part of his earlier must-read book Spillover. Though the material in this book wasn't new to me, its stand alone presentation did something to make it much more real to me -- or it could be just be the benefits of a good 2nd reading.

The book's aim is to focus on just one aspect of HIV: how, when, where, and why it spilled into humans. Quammen's ability to tell an Indiana Jones-style detective adventure story is completely captivating to me and, even though I know where the story is going to lead from familiarity with the scientific research, his version is much better than the often dry scientific papers I read.

Integrating the cut-hunter hypothesis for HIV's initial spillovers into humans (and before that spillovers from monkeys to chimpanzees) with the trajectory of the global pandemic is a tough task that is expertly executed in this short book. Many important facts such as how many times HIV has spilled-over into humans (about a dozen, one for each strain of HIV-1 and HIV-2), the 2 monkey species chimerism of the HIV-1 progenitor SIVcpz, and the wedge of Cameroon where it all began are covered with great and memorable detail.

I highly recommend this book and hope that as the HIV story continues to unravel, Quammen's expert narrative of the phenomen will continue as well.