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Radio review: Fever: The hunt for Covid’s origin and Witch

09 June 2023

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Fever: The hunt for Covid’s origin (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week) investigated the virus’s beginnings

Fever: The hunt for Covid’s origin (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week) investigated the virus’s beginnings

NATURE is dangerous. The world out there is teeming with microbes, host to a “viral soup” of disease; and that’s what makes it so exciting, at least to the scientists intent on finding them, changing their genetic profile, and injecting them into laboratory mice, right next door to livestock markets in the middle of large cities. What could possibly go wrong?

There is, in John Sudworth’s documentary Fever: The hunt for Covid’s origin (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week), such a sense of inevitability that one is almost prepared to believe the lab-leak theory before it has been properly articulated. Add a musical score that presumably came from a section of the sound library headed “dark foreboding”, and the case is closed. Blame it on the batshit.

It is, indeed, in the excrement of our furry friends that coronaviruses are most at home. To certain breeds of scientist, batshit is “liquid gold”, so richly endowed is it with diverse organisms. After the SARS outbreak of 2002, shovelfuls of the stuff have been carted to laboratories in Wuhan and elsewhere; and, if the tenor of the first episode in Sudworth’s investigation is indicative of the series as a whole, the big question to be answered is not how it happened, but why anyone was induced to believe any other explanation.

There is much besides faeces to enjoy in the programme; not least the character of Shi Zhengli (aka “batwoman”): one of the senior scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, whose contribution to the early debate about Covid’s origins was to tell critical journalists to “shut their stinky mouths”. She is also a karaoke enthusiast. I have a feeling that we are going to hear a great deal more from her over the course of the series.

For all the conspiracies that swirl around this topic, I feel that with John Sudworth we are in pretty safe hands. He doesn’t, for instance, need to tell us “I’m a reporter and I look for answers.” No such authority is displayed by India Rakusen, who — in the course of Witch (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week) — admitted to feeling all “tickly” when she thinks of magic, and seemed to be enjoying the feeling of “clawing and whispering” which she experienced while witnessing a pagan Beltane ceremony: “If you look carefully into the smoke, you might see the goddess Freya emerging.” Given that this was a serious ritual, conducted by serious people, and she is a serious reporter, what exactly is connoted by that word “might”?

The historian Ronald Hutton appeared (dressed in tweed jacket and cravat, we are told) to alert us to the chaotic collision of traditions around witchcraft: like dodgems, which he, as an unarguably serious academic, would prefer to avoid. Of these, the most influential nowadays appears to be the sense that it bestows confidence and agency on young women and a sense of power. Becoming a witch is “an act of resistance”. All 13 episodes are now available on BBC Sounds, to be ignored at your leisure.

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