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The Demon in the Freezer: A True Story

by Richard Preston
234 pages,
ISBN: 0375508562


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Apocalypse in the Making
by Andy Brown

With SARS, West Nile Virus, and bioterrorism occupying the headlines, Richard Preston is certainly prescient in his trilogy of books on "dark biology". His book, The Hot Zone, about the Ebola virus, was made into the movie Outbreak. This latest work, The Demon in the Freezer, was published after the anthrax scare of October 2001, what the FBI labels "Amerithrax" and considers the first act of biological terror on US soil. Preston focuses not on anthrax but the smallpox virus, and the more dreadful potential of it being used, or engineered, as a biological weapon. As Peter Jahrling, head of USAMRIID (United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases) is quoted as saying, "Smallpox is the one virus that can basically bring the world to its knees. And the likelihood of smallpox being visited on us is far greater than a nuclear war."
Preston spares no details in exposing the tenuous underpinning of the smallpox Eradication program. The disease was officially wiped out on December 9th, 1979. In fact one of the best parts of the book is the chapter about hippies traveling around Asia on a psychedelic roadtrip and stumbling upon the Eradication program in full force in Bangladesh. Preston describes the methods of these heroic health workers who used ring containment strategies, and immunized thousands of peasants at a time. Yet those of us who were kids in the 1970s wear the scars of immunization by a vaccine which is effective for only five years, and which has left a population filled with the false belief that the disease, which killed over a billion people in the hundred years before it was eradicated, will never return.
Officially there are only two remaining repositories of the smallpox virus (or viriola), a freezer in Siberia and a freezer in the Maximum Containment Laboratory at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. However, Preston quotes Russian scientists who defected during the Cold War and claim to have been working on a bioweapons program, who say that at one point twenty tons of the smallpox virus went missing. To maintain that the viriola is contained only in those two freezers is absurd.
The smallpox virus has destroyed civilizations before, and if it has a chance to make a comeback, will do so again. It could easily be accountable for the plague of Athens in 430 BC, the Black Death which wiped out a third of the population of Europe in 1348, the destruction of the Aztec empire by a single Spanish slave carrying the disease, and the deliberate genocide of the Native American population with blankets from the smallpox hospital, which was the real first act of bioterror on US soil.
In 1999 there was a heated movement to destroy all the remaining samples of smallpox. However, the US military, interested in keeping smallpox around, asked Jahrling to conduct experiments. Preston describes the extremely dangerous tests which Jahrling's team began on monkeys. On September 11th 2001 the team was in their biohazard suits at Level 4 danger, with live smallpox virus infecting the entire lab, when they heard of the terrorist attacks. They quickly realized that their lab could be a prime target (and possibly the most devastating one), and panic ensued.
These facts are so frightening that when Preston tries to develop tension at a human level it just seems contrived. Relating smallpox to the Ebola virus, he builds up the story of Lisa Hensley, the brilliant young scientist who is asked to experiment with Ebola when all she wants to do is scuba dive and cure AIDS. We spend hours with her at Level 4 in her suit, too busy to eat, until the fateful moment when she slips and cuts her finger. A writer of fiction would have Lisa agonize over the cut, suffer at the hands of infection, and the story would ultimately lead to tragedy. But this is a true story and nothing happens to Lisa; she continues to perform her valuable research. Here is the inherent problem with this book. It doesn't go anywhere. It is just a litany of exhaustively researched facts intended to scare the life (literally) out of us. Fittingly, Stephen King is quoted on the back cover saying that the book is, "One of the most horrifying things I've ever read in my whole life."
There are fascinating moments, however, such as when Preston hints at a larger framework and points out the almost mystical status of disease. In one chapter he outlines the history of the smallpox virus. Many ancient cultures had deities devoted to smallpox. The Hindu religion has its own goddess, named Shitala Ma, and there are temples in her honour all over India. The tricks which the simple virus has developed to infect and occupy a host can be seen as pure evolutionary events which go beyond our simple understanding. If viruses are examined at this evolutionary scale, as a species which has existed long before humans, and which will probably exist long after we are gone, then we can almost see them as something of a universal force. As Preston writes, "Poxviruses keep herds and swarms of living things in check, preventing them from growing too large and overwhelming their habitatsÓ Viruses are nature's crowd control." Smallpox is the human poxvirus. To completely eradicate the smallpox virus contained in those two freezers, from an ethical standpoint, is to make a species extinct.
Preston has won the American Institute of Physics award and has an asteroid named after him. Even with all these credentials, his writing about science is accessible. He writes of the checks and balances that the virus and its vaccine are inevitably up against, the techniques being used by a variety of friendly and not-so-friendly governments to genetically engineer viruses, and how these techniques are now being disseminated. The information on how to engineer viriola to make it a "nuclearpox" and simply "crash through" a vaccine, for example, is readily available on the Web. Yet Preston fails to put this information into the broader sociological perspective that makes discussions of diseases so interesting. In Illness as Metaphor Susan Sontag offers the criticism I craved from Preston. While discussing humanity's fascination with plague narratives Sontag writes: "Diseases represent the ultimate loss of control. Their multi-determined nature opens them up to the widest possibility as metaphors for what is felt to be morally or socially wrong with our society." Is there a difference between the physicists in the 1940s naively working on the atom bomb and the scientists of today publishing their articles on how to engineer viruses which could be used as weapons of mass destruction? Preston side-steps these ethical issues. He contributes to the media's increasingly alarmist group fear without offering any deeper criticism.
In the end Preston does not have a final point. He lays out a carpet of fear and never walks over it himself. He makes a justifiable case for giving the smallpox eradicators the Nobel Prize, but this comes after the reader is huddled scared under the blankets. This book was published before the SARS fear began sweeping the world but it is not hard to see the similarities between the coronavirus (which is believed to cause SARS) and the smallpox virus. In fact the chapter relating the spread of smallpox throughout a German hospital is eerily reminiscent of the attempt to quarantine the Scarborough Grace hospital. Interestingly enough, the search for a SARS vaccine is being spearheaded by none other than Peter Jahrling, who also happens to work for the US military. If I were a conspiracy theorist I would speculate that SARS is the result of a Chinese bioweapons program gone wrong. Perhaps a window was left open somewhere in Guangdong province and, thanks to the speed of modern transportation, our global civilization is being given a taste of things to come. ˛
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