Lyle Fearnley’s Virulent Zones: Animal Disease and Global Health at China’s Pandemic Epicenter offers a gripping anthropological account of the search for the origins of influenza pandemics in China. As an outgrowth of the author’s field studies in Jiangxi’s Poyang Lake and in Beijing, this book focuses on the “displacement” of the widespread scholarly and media hypothesis that southern China is the influenza epicenter. (Here, “displacement” refers to unexpected changes to scientists’ research objects, whereby “epistemological assumptions were put in motion, experimental systems were adjusted, and norms of scientific practice were modified” ). This displacement can be understood on three levels. First, scientists’ “movement into the epicenter [in search for the origins of influenza] displaced the epistemic conditions of research on pandemic influenza.” Second, the movement into the epicenter “displaced the laboratory models of experimental practice.” Third, the movement into the epicenter “brought global health projects for pandemic preparedness onto China’s national territory, producing new reassortments of transnational science and ‘biosovereignty’” (194–96).
This book, then, purports to show how scientists have been made to “reconsider their objects, their experimental systems, and even their own expertise” because “China’s landscapes of intensive livestock farming and state biopolitics created ecologies of influenza that exceeded global health models and assumptions” (1–2). The author divides the book into three parts: “Ecology,” “Landscape,” and “Territory.” “Ecology,” which consists of chapters 1 and 2, highlights “the epistemological displacement of influenza research from virological to ecological disciplines” (22). Chapter 1 examines numerous influenza outbreaks in the twentieth century and traces the origin of the China-as-epicenter hypothesis back to the 1950s. In each case, laboratory research enhanced and altered those scientists’ understanding of “the form, scale, and origins of the global health pandemic” (29). Chapter 2 grapples with the famous assumption proposed in the early 1980s by Hong Kong–based virologist Kennedy Shortridge—namely, southern China as a “point of origin of influenza pandemics” (2). Fearnley points out that Shortridge’s hypothesis was actually a juxtaposition of two “distinct kinds of truth claim”: “concise virological results” and “broader claims about the ecology and ethnology of southern China” (51). In consequence, pure laboratory research was displaced by “a new set of experimental systems that made the ecology of the epicenter into a scientific object of its own” (53).
Part 2, “Landscape,” comprises chapters 3 and 4. It documents the encounters of “scientific models and experimental systems with the historical and cultural practice of farm production,” particularly in the Poyang Lake region (22). Based on the author’s field studies in Poyang, chapter 3 explores the intersections of China’s livestock revolution in the post-Mao era with global biosecurity programs and their unexpected consequences. Here, the author discusses the complex interplay between global health and agricultural production. As pandemic-preparedness and biosecurity interventions elicited an acute sense of uncertainty by culling diseased poultry, closing markets, and thereby driving smallholder farmers out of business, farmers responded to such economic uncertainty by resorting to a long-held practice of free grazing to save costs. Free grazing, however, gave rise to a new sense of uncertainty, for it created an ecology of interspecies communications, the very cause of the reassortment of new viruses (93–94).
Chapter 4 explores two kinds of scientific knowledge production: science in the laboratory and science in the field. In the author’s words, science in the field invariably takes place amid a “working landscape,” that is, “a setting already being produced and reproduced for a wide variety of human ends” (100). It is because of the emphasis on science in the field that Poyang Lake figured prominently as a focal point in studying the origins of pandemic influenza. The work at Poyang was known as a “One Health approach,” namely, the investigation of “the ecological relationships that contributed to the transmission of flu viruses into new populations” gained more weight than merely “analyzing and classifying viruses in the laboratory” did (102). Nevertheless, the author also cautions that the line between laboratory science and science in the field is hardly clear-cut. Meanwhile, the researchers’ new finding that the distinction between wild and domestic birds was vague also contributed to reshaping their research agendas (116).
The final part, “Territory,” turns its attention to the intersection of “global health projects with China’s investments in ‘biosovereignty’” (23). Chapter 5 poses a challenge to the conventional account of China’s “failures to report outbreaks, or refusals to share virus samples, as ‘assertions’ of national sovereignty in conflict with global health norms of open-access research and transparent surveillance” (126). Fearnley shows instead that “the cultivation of qualitative networks” proved to be the key to “the ethical and political process of data collection” (140). He calls this unofficial process “strategies of affinity,” which include “the banquet dinners and drinking alcohol in the Chinese way” that helped to “break down barriers to transnational communion” (152). He concludes the chapter by arguing that affinity, as a necessary strategy of “negotiating the geopolitics of national biosovereignty,” was a contributing factor behind the movement to the epicenter (154).
The last chapter, chapter 6, provides an account of the training of China’s state-employed veterinarians. Ironically, such training programs only led to “professional detachment that separated state-employed vets” from the “working landscapes of rural China” (162). Such detachment has necessitated the emergence of a “new kind of informal, unlicensed vet” in the Poyang Lake area, whom Fearnley calls “duck doctors” (162), making a nice comparison between these and the barefoot doctors of Mao-era China. In short, while barefoot doctors represented the state’s encroachment on rural society during the early years of the People’s Republic of China, duck doctors “appeared in the wake of the withdrawal and detachment of state veterinary services” (188). Given the vital role played by these duck doctors in local poultry marketplaces, the author could usefully have given us more detailed information about the workings of local vets and farmers in handling potential influenza outbreaks.
This book is, without a doubt, a timely contribution to our understanding of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. The author gives some thoughts on the Covid-19 outbreak in the Postscript, in which he hails “a network model of global health, in which large-scale collection of viruses and data-sharing across borders enable rapid response to emerging viruses” (210). Despite his optimism, current bitter disputes, particularly over the origin of coronavirus, show that negotiating biosovereignty remains an arduous task in today’s world. That minor point aside, Virulent Zones is an outstanding scholarly work as it unmasks the mechanism of virus hunting and disease control in China at a time of marketization and globalization. It allows for an alternative understanding of the interplay of science and everyday life. It is highly recommended reading not only for anthropologists but also for anyone interested in public health in contemporary China.