Anthrax, smallpox, West Nile virus, mad cow disease
and now Black Death? The 21st centurys list of new and returning biological scourges is enough to make anyone go a little Howard Hughes. But knowledge is the best defense, and Wendy Orents Plague is full of facts and educated speculations about the "world's most dangerous disease." Although always caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, plague can manifest in many ways, from a relatively benign and uncontagious infection to a potent airborne form that spreads like wildfire and kills without fail. Orent provides a gripping history of plague outbreaks around the world, such as the notorious Black Death of medieval Europe, and explains why reservoirs in rodent populations mean we will never eradicate the disease. Then, in chapters echoing recent books about smallpox and anthrax, Orent investigates the 20th century Soviet bioweapons program that focused on plague. Growing it, perfecting it, stockpiling it to use in wartime. Her insider information comes from Igor Domaradskij, a leading scientist in Soviet biological weapon development and vaccine production. In her interviews with Domaradskij, Orent allows him to show how easy it is for well-meaning scientists to shift back and forth between humanitarian and military work. Plague reveals the inner workings of a terrifying research effort, the products of which may or may not have been destroyed in 1992, when Boris Yeltsin ordered Soviet bioweapon labs shut down. Without resorting to alarmism, Orent cautions the world that plague is still out there, in nature and in laboratories, waiting for a chance to spread again. --Therese Littleton
From Publishers Weekly
As journalist Orent shows, what is called the plaguea killer of millions throughout the centuriesis several different diseases, some spread by animals, others by humans. Luckily, the Black Death, as the plague was called in the late 14th and early 15th centuries, "never became a permanent human specialist, like smallpox," in part, she surmises, because it was too virulent to survive for long. But when Orent moves on to the present and future of the plague, she's treading on uncertain ground. With the help of a former Soviet bioweapons scientist, Igor Domaradskij, whose memoirs she's edited, she throws the spotlight on the Soviet development of strains of the plague. The frightening thing, she notes, is that some of these strains can no longer be accounted for. Whether or not that is something that should be feared is unclear: American experts she quotes argue that these viruses are no longer major threats to create an epidemic. But she contends that while not as deadly as anthrax, the strains of the plague created in the former Soviet Unionor other strains of the disease that might be antibiotic resistantare indeed something to worry about. Not so long ago, a book like this might have seemed like fear mongering. In the postSeptember 11 world, a plague outbreak may still be unlikely, but many readers will find this a subject deserving further investigation.
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