The Demon in the Freezer, Richard Preston

Ballantine, 2002, 292 pages, C$11.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-345-46663-2

It’s not required to have read the first two volumes of what Richard Preston calls his “Dark Biology” trilogy (The Hot Zone and The Cobra Event) in order to appreciate The Demon in the Freezer, but it does help. While this book isn’t, strictly speaking, a sequel to The Hot Zone, it does exist in a very similar context and features a number of the same scientists as characters.

In The Hot Zone, Preston studied Ebola, an exotic disease that may, someday, cause a widespread epidemic. In The Demon in the Freezer, he takes a look at another disease, one that has already killed more humans than anyone can count: smallpox.

In many ways, it’s an even more interesting subject than Ebola. I’m part of the first generation that never had to worry about smallpox: Thanks to worldwide efforts by the health community, the disease was eliminated in 1975, the year I was born: Doctors vaccinated entire populations, setting up “firebreaks” the once-rampant disease couldn’t infect. Safely contained, smallpox burned itself out and disappeared from Earth in one of the most significant public health victories in humankind’s history.

Officially, existing stocks of the disease were consolidated in two places: Atlanta’s CDC and Vector, a research facility on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Officially, all agreed to keep copies of the virus “just in case”, maybe for developing better medicines. Officially, that’s where the trail end.

Unofficially, this is a much spookier story. Evidence exists that, the lax state of Russian security being what it was in the 1990s, copies of the virus have been made, replicated and tested… maybe even sold to other countries, or stolen by agents of these countries. Given the extremely contagious nature of smallpox, the most paranoid virologists have long dreaded an engineered strain of a disease with smallpox’s transmission characteristics coupled with the devastating effects of, say, Ebola.

Now public research is making progress in areas that are related to such a nightmare. A mousepox virus that just tears through existing vaccines. A successful attempt to make monkeys sick with human smallpox. Genetic engineering always progresses forward, and Preston faithfully report on it: “I spent days with Chen during the time he engineered the mouse supervirus. ‘It’s not difficult to make this virus,’ he said to me one day. “You could learn how to do it.’” [P.267]

The supreme irony being that the virus is still out there, waiting to be re-used. This demon still awaits in the freezer. In the book’s perfect concluding paragraph, Preston notes that “the virus’s last strategy for survival was to bewitch its host and become a source of power.” [P.283] In this post-2001 age of anthrax letters and hyper-terrorism (all covered in here), who’s to say what’s next?

Granted, I’d advise a bit of scepticism. In The Hot Zone, Preston makes a lot about “the coming plague”, a claim later disputed by books such as Ed Regis’ Virus Ground Zero. (Preston even takes a break to defend his argument in this book). Similarly, his inferences may be a touch too alarmist: While the back cover trumpets “Iraq (…is) almost certainly hiding illegal stocks of the deadly virus”, later events have shown this assertion to be, er, false. (On the other hand, Preston’s narrative is less categorical, and even includes an interesting scene in which White House officials almost pressure Peter Jahrling in saying that the Anthrax letter could have been produced in Iraq [P.225]. Hmmm…)

Nevertheless, it’s good (and entertaining) to be swept along by Preston’s prose. With his novel The Cobra Event, he confirmed his talent for writing a compelling narrative and many of the tools he used then are repeated here: Smooth transitions from exclusive interviews to historical narrative, powerful anecdotes and a careful arrangement of material. I find it regrettable the the paperback edition of the book doesn’t include an index (a general flaw of non-fiction books that bothers me more and more with time), but you’d be hard-pressed to find a more reader-friendly pop-science book on the subject. It’s splendidly entertaining, more than a little scary and unbelievably gripping. With The Demon in the Freezer, Preston scores a solid third hit in a row; I wonder what’s next on his publishing schedule.

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