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Book Review: “The Demon in the Freezer”, by Richard Preston

Before reading “The Demon in the Freezer”, I was rather ignorant about bioterrorism. The only instance of it that sprung to mind was the anthrax attacks on the United States shortly after 9/11. After reading Richard Preston’s book, I wish I was still as ignorant as I once was!

Allow me to explain. Preston’s book opens with the early days of the aforementioned anthrax attacks (dubbed “Amerithrax”). While Amerithrax only took 5 lives, the officials dealing with the investigation were faced with a terrifying prospect: that there could have been more than just anthrax in those envelopes. It was from this point onwards that tiny creepings of paranoia began to set in.

What made scientists, the military and politicians afraid of the Amerithrax anthrax was a number of key factors: the anthrax didn’t look like normal anthrax under an electron microscope, the powder was highly aerosolised (it floated readily off of a spatula – unusual for wild type anthrax) and our governments were aware that there were groups around the world (who weren’t necessarily friendly towards the US) who were actively culturing and experimenting with smallpox.

What if the anthrax had been laced with smallpox?

The example of smallpox

Luckily, we know this wasn’t the case. Smallpox was one of the most devastating diseases in human history: the WHO estimated that it killed 2 million people a year, and its survivors were often left permanently scarred, or even blind. Its eradication (a feat which I still struggle to comprehend, given its contagious nature and the lack of infrastructure in many parts of the world at the time) has been estimated to have saved roughly 70,000,000 lives. Everyone has heard the story that, once eradicated, smallpox was kept in only two repositories. What fewer people seem to know (or perhaps I’m somewhat ignorant in these matters!) is that following the defection of a Russian scientist to the West, the eastern nation was revealed to be working with the virus – and not just in vitro, but also possibly in monkey models. International investigation teams which visited Russia following reports from their defector found facilities capable of brewing up hundreds of gallons of virus – bear in mind only a few virions are needed to infect a person.

It is with these troubling thoughts that Richard Preston leads us on a somewhat unnerving account of just how vulnerable we all are to the threat of bioterrorism. Preston gathers first-hand accounts of the eradicators and doctors who have come into contact with people who were victims of the pox (heads up: the descriptions aren’t pretty, this book isn’t for the squeamish) and really makes you wonder just how we’d cope. While we still have the ability to make smallpox vaccine, just think about the things you may do in your lab on a daily basis. How easy is it to insert a gene into DNA these days? It can be done in a matter of hours. How do we fight genetically modified smallpox? Concern was raised in the scientific community in 2001, when a paper published in the Journal of Virology described the insertion of a simple interleukin 4 (IL-4) gene into mousepox. The resulting virus completely wiped out test populations of mice – mice that had been vaccinated against wild type mousepox and those which were naturally resistant: it was 100% lethal. It was also shown that this genetically modified strain of mousepox was not contagious – if a mouse escaped, it wouldn’t decimate the rodent population – but how easy would it be to make a contagious strain?

What do we do?

Richard Preston’s book – which I would highly recommend – truly makes you aware of the threat of bioterrorism, and how vulnerable we all are to it. In the 21st century – a time which has seen some of the most staggering acts of terrorism (9/11, the London and Madrid bombings, the shootings and bombing in Norway…), you do wonder how close we are, and how close we have already come, to being victims of biowarfare.

Despite the massive global effort that was necessary to eradicate smallpox, Preston’s book shows us that we clearly can’t trust all of our neighbours – for that matter, can we even trust out own governments? The smallpox vaccines handed out in the eradication effort are useless now – the immunity only keeps us safe for roughly five years. Releasing the virus amongst the world’s population would cause a dramatic loss of life.

What do we do? Do we demand that all countries destroy all their stocks of virus? No way that’ll happen – everyone will suspect each other of keeping some hidden somewhere. Reading “The Demon in the Freezer” has made me think a lot more about the dangers we all face and how hopelessly outgunned we could so easily be. But I’m not going to build a bunker and fill it with survival gear. For one thing, the WHO and all our respective nations have emergency measures in  place for epidemics.  And I have faith in scientists. For all the stereotypes of crazed, mad, God-playing maniac lab rats, you’d have to be an idiot not to see the dangers in using biowarfare.

At the end of the day, all we have to rely on is the knowledge that the scientists and governments who have been (and possibly could still be) working with smallpox know what unleashing it on the world would mean.

Book information:

Title: The Demon in the Freezer

Author: Richard Preston

Publisher: Fawcett (August 26, 2003)

Language: English

ISBN-10: 0345466632

ISBN-13: 978-0345466631

2 Comments

  1. Xenobio on May 4, 2016 at 10:15 am

    It is also NOT true that vaccinia only protects you from smallpox for 5 years. Immunity does wane somewhat over time but most healthy people have specific long-term memory for decades.

  2. Xenobio on May 4, 2016 at 10:14 am

    I read this book when I was working in a lab that handled plague AND monkeypox virus routinely. Comparing the paranoid tone of the book with my everyday experience handling these deadly pathogens under strict safety protocols with people who were cautious, rational, and had the protection of animal and human health in mind, led me to conclude that Preston’s work is better read as entertainment than education.

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