By Pat Williamsen

“The world was in a tizzy but without focus, without commitment, without leadership.” From its very first pages, Virion invites comparisons with the current moment which finds the State of Ohio experiencing stay-at-home orders and limited re-openings.  Published in 2011, the novel presents a fictional account of the spread of avian influenza, first in China through domestic fowl infected by migrating birds to an outbreak in the western United States.  It all sounds too familiar. 

Written by MJ Groves, a Springfield native and physician educated at the Ohio State University, the narrative follows the effort of numerous people trying to track the virus’s progression across rural southeast Asia or evaluate its deadliness in lab settings.  An authoritative guide, her descriptions of field research are particularly enlightening.

Throughout most of the novel, a potential pandemic lurks in the background. The protagonists – heroes and anti-heroes alike – struggle with the everyday, albeit interesting, concerns of a blossoming love story and a son’s anguish of his mother’s frail health.  Sadly, the latter provides a leitmotif for an improbable climax. The story incorporates some passing commentary about political will and incompetence, peppered with a few jabs at the media for promulgating fake news.  Larger themes of dominion over nature, xenophobia, and scapegoating are only lightly explored in the last few pages of the book.  These were missed opportunities to create a more subtle examination of the calamity caused by widespread disease.

Still, Virion is instructive, both in looking back to the avian flu epidemic, and for considering potential outcomes of the current pandemic. With a series of discussion prompts at the end of the book, Virion invites readers to reflect on several topics that are on the minds of many these days.