Richard Preston, The Demon in the Freezer

The Demon in the Freezer


Start with this: It’s not what you would call a fun read. A year after the anthrax attacks that paralyzed mail service, shut down Congress, and killed five American civilians, popular virus expert Richard Preston enters the fray with The Demon in the Freezer, a book aptly titled for its alarming premise: We are frighteningly vulnerable to biological weapons.

Preston is late to this grim party, of course — and his turf has been pretty well eroded by the lucky and the quick (”Germs”; ”Holy War, Inc.”; ”Scourge: The Once and Future Threat of Smallpox”). It must seem bitterly unfair: After all, the New Yorker writer is the guy who taught us to fear microbes that lurk in the jungles of Africa and the test tubes of madmen, first with 1994’s terrifying nonfiction account of an Ebola outbreak outside Washington, D.C., ”The Hot Zone,” and then — during that blissful time when the world didn’t readily offer up the kind of story lines we can’t escape these days — with the novel ”The Cobra Event.” His books made the threat of exotic new plagues all too imaginable, but recent events have forced him to go antiquing, turning his misery-seeking eye to smallpox.

Preston begins with the events of Thursday, Sept. 27, 2001. It is almost three weeks after the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, and photo retoucher Robert Stevens is feeling unwell. After taking his family hiking in North Carolina, he complains of flu-like symptoms and starts vomiting profusely. The next day he develops a high fever and becomes incoherent. Then come convulsions, a coma, and finally, a fatal breathing arrest; by the time autopsy experts open him up, his lymph nodes are the size of plums. The diagnosis — inhalation anthrax — sends the Army and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention into a near panic. And as more poisoned letters are discovered and more victims rushed to bivouac units, the authorities fret over their worst fantasy: Could the anthrax — a noncommunicable disease treatable with early diagnosis — be laced with the far more deadly smallpox?

Scary stuff, but here’s where ”Demon” gets klutzy. Boxed in by the competition — which has already covered a lot of this ground — Preston is forced into massive temporal jumps. After the anthrax attacks on Sen. Tom Daschle’s office in October 2001, he flashes back to a 1970s smallpox outbreak in Germany. Then to the prehistoric origins of the virus. Then back to the ’70s, with an engaging retelling of the smallpox eradication campaign, one of the greatest feats in the history of public health. Then it’s off to an examination of the Soviet bio-weapons program in 1989. In fact, 140 pages pass before Preston returns to the 2001 anthrax attacks and makes a concerted effort to link them to smallpox. That connection boils down to an anticlimactic ”They didn’t use smallpox, but, uh, they could have, and it would have been really bad if they had.”

That said, there’s no denying that this virus — particularly the genetically engineered variety developed by Soviet researchers — is potentially the most pernicious item on a bio-terrorist’s menu. It’s wildly infectious and kills quickly and without discrimination. (Just ask the Aztecs — or the U.S. government, which recently announced theoretical nationwide emergency vaccination plans.) And Preston’s writing is as vivid as ever; like a nonfiction Thomas Harris, he provides the kind of fascinating forensics and propulsive narrative that such books as ”Germs” — last year’s best-seller from New York Times writers Judith Miller, Stephen Engelberg, and William Broad — lack, despite a remarkable overlap in sources and interview subjects. ”A vaccine-resistant smallpox would be everyone’s worst nightmare come true,” he tells us. ”We could be left trying to fight a genetically engineered virus with a vaccine that had been invented in 1796.”

Brrrrr. Did the temperature just drop 30 degrees?

What Preston has crafted here is another ripping real-life horror story — one made all the more disturbing by his conclusion. We now know all too well that terror is no longer the domain solely of the impoverished and war-ravaged. And wanton death from disease, Preston tells us, could well be democratized next.

The Demon in the Freezer
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