T. S. Eliot's bleak vision of the future doesn't even begin to include the gloomy prognostications revealed in this book. That terrorists will either acquire or develop biological weapons capable of destroying all human life is not just a possibility, it's a probability, as Preston makes abundantly clear in this update on biological weapons development. This book is the ultimate wake-up call. Even if you want to sleep after reading this, you may not be able to.
Of the several biological weapons which have been under development in the past twenty-five years, smallpox is by far the most lethal and contagious, and irresponsible scientists have genetically engineered it in the past few years to make vaccination useless against it. Antidotes are unknown because humans are the only hosts for smallpox, and there is no way to run a test study of their efficacy. Preston points out, "It has taken the world twenty years to reach roughly fifty million cases of AIDS. [A single case of smallpox in an unprotected population] can reach that point in ten to twenty weeks."
A massive research and development program for weapons grade smallpox and plague, along with the MIRV missiles and warheads to deliver them abroad, continued, unknown and unmonitored, in the Soviet Union for twenty years after smallpox was officially eradicated in 1978. The whereabouts of the twenty tons of "hot," genetically altered smallpox are currently unknown. According to a defecting Russian scientist, even the Soviet researchers do not know where it went, but "they think it went to North Korea." Iran and Iraq are also believed to have "benefited" from this research and to have ongoing, active bioweapons research programs.
Preston's focus on the people who are actively fighting potential biological terrorism in this country gives a human face to this frightening prospect, while his descriptions of the individuals who fought for their lives in the world's last cases of smallpox make the horror an all too vivid reality. His analysis of the anthrax outbreak last year, and the delivery systems which make possible such outbreaks of anthrax, Ebola, and plague are enlightening. Forcing the reader to acknowledge the reality of a new kind of war, one more lethal and uncontrollable than ever before in history, Preston illuminates the tenuous nature of human life in the twenty-first century. The tiniest of living organisms are capable of wiping out the entire human population of the world if they get into the hands of a madman. Mary Whipple
on November 11, 2002
Richard Preston has written a frightening book. Starting and ending with the Anthrax attacks on the United States. Preston has talked to many of the top bioweapons engineers in the world and his research shows in this outstanding book. Full of information from accross the world. The history of Smallpox, the eradication effort by the World Health Organization. The background on Anthrax. Side stories to Ebola. The most dangerous virus's in the world are addressed in this book.
The book examines the threat of Smallpox and explains why most people in the know about infectious disease's still consider it the worst the world has ever seen, even worse than plague. The book touches on Biopreparat (for a more in depth look read Biohazard by Ken Alibek) and the Russian stockpiles of Smallpox that they have weaponized and put into missiles to attack other countries. The CDC, Center for Disease Control and Prevention, in Atlanta still holds over 450 different strains of Smallpox.
The book goes on to explain how many countries have Smallpox and this is not a little known fact. How genetic engineering could easily make Smallpox harder to contain than it already is. In today's world travel a Smallpox outbreak would mean hundreds of thousands of deaths and it would shut down international trade. it would bring the world to its knees. With 25 million people living within a couple hours travel of one another an outbreak in a third world county could show up in the United States in a few days. And this is not taking into account the possibility of a direct bioweapons attack on the United States. Before it was diagnosed, it would be spread around the world by air travel.
This book is well written, reads easily, is full of information and very thought provoking. It was so engrossing that I started ready one night and did not want to put it down. I finished it the next afternoon. For a better understanding of what the world is facing today you should read this book. Smallpox is just as dangerous, if not more dangerous, than a nuclear war. Nuclear devastation is confined to the area of the bomb. Smallpox would travel person to person throughout the world. In a word, the information in this book is, frightening.
Richard Preston's first work of non-fiction, "The Hot Zone" was a gruesome look at emerging viruses in general, and the Ebola virus in particular. However, no matter how grotesque it got, the reader could detach themselves from the book because Ebola is basically unheard of in the developed world, and isn't particularly effective at spreading (it kills its victims to quickly). His latest, "The Demon in the Freezer" is another story altogether.
In it, he discusses the appalling specter of smallpox in general, and weaponized smallpox in particular. By using the anthrax attacks of 2001 as a jumping off point, he delves into a fascinating exploration of a disease that most people consider eradicated. Unfortunately, Preston reveals that this is far from the case. While it is true that smallpox hasn't occurred naturally in 25 years, it is accepted (if not altogether proven) that the Russians have significant stockpiles of particularly virulent smallpox. Moreover, it seems probable that some of this material has found its way into the hands of other actors (Iran, Iraq, North Korea). Finally, give the abundance of smallpox samples available just three decades ago, it seems likely that parallel programs could have been pursued in any number of countries.
In clear (if you've studied any biology at all, you should be fine with the terms in this book, and there is a glossary), vibrant language, Preston explores the personalities and institutions involved in trying to understand what smallpox today would mean. With a significant portion of the population having never been vaccinated, and the efficacy of 30-year-old vaccinations in serious doubt, it is a certainty that the release of even "natural" smallpox would be an absolutely devastating event. But what is even scarier is the possibility for engineered viruses that could burn through a fresh round of vaccinations and that would be almost impossible to counter.
As compelling as the subject matter is, and as breathless as Preston's writing is, it bears mentioning that he does an excellent job of staying above the scientific debate. His narrative is nothing if not evenhanded, and he goes to great lengths to report varying points of view in an engaging, but dispassionate tone. The closest he comes to editorializing is when he takes a jab (that is to my mind well deserved) at the Clinton administration for handling the Russians with kid gloves when the U.S. knew for a fact, from a variety of sources that, they had huge stockpiles of smallpox. The end result of this rather typical bungling was the loss of security, the loss of accountability, and the loss of awareness as to the material's locale.
In light of the Bush Administration's recent decision to begin immunizing health care workers, and to begin stockpiling enough vaccine for every American, this book takes on a whole new importance. Anyone who doesn't understand the decision, or what the consequences of bio-warfare are, would do well the read this book. Moreover, anyone who doubts the grave threat to all mankind posed by smallpox will find this book a disturbing eye-opener. It is eminently readable and is loaded with fascinating, downright terrifying, information.
What begins as a noble undertaking - the wiping out of the scourge of humankind in the guise of smallpox, becomes a greater potential danger for mankind, perpetuated by mankind itself. In a new version of the adage "If you outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns" we now find that while we have eradicated a deadly disease in the wild, we have made it infinitely more dangerous in the lab.
Preston once again writes about the hazard of bioweapons. This time he uses the recent anthrax scare as the launching point to discuss man's use of technology to create deadlier and deadlier biological weapons. With the thread of war with Iraq hanging over our heads, the fear of bioweapon use has not been higher. He then takes this anthrax and steps off from that, as if to say "If you think this is bad, well look behind this curtain." Here Preston begins after his main point - the continued existence of smallpox in two official repositories in the US and Russia, as well as the potential multiple repositories across the world in renegade experimentation. His point - that the world is a very dangerous place, and we stand at the threshold of a new kind of warfare - one that could make the atomic bomb look like a small explosion.
Living only a few miles from the CDC, this book struck particularly home. Preston goes on to describe in detail the horror experienced by a victim of smallpox. Then he proceeds to explain the storehouse at the Centers for Disease Control, and more so how experiments have been taking place there with Smallpox, including on the day of September 11, 2001. Had the CDC been a target that date, many of us in Atlanta would not be reading this book today.
Unfortunately, I don't think Preston's bouncing between smallpox and anthrax worked as well as he intended. It would have been better if he were to prepare two discreet sections and scare the bejesus out of us with both. Overall, though, he makes you think, worry and sweat a little. Walking away from this book, the reader should be scared and alarmed. But most of all the reader will be informed. Well worth your time.
on January 5, 2007
I had a smallpox vaccination as a child, just like all of my peers. We were all innoculated because it was part of the scheduled childhood immunizations then, and I always wondered if there was smallpox, could there be a worse kind, maybe Large Pox? This book was informative as to what actually happens to a person who contracts smallpox, and should make us all thankful that it isn't the natural threat today that it was in the past. Truth is much scarier than fiction, and this book forces us to consider what could happen if smallpox was unleashed deliberately. If that happened, it would indeed be the "Large Pox" of my childhood imagination...So if you want a book to read before bed, one that comforts, one that has a definitive and positive ending, this isn't it. If you want a wake up call of how tentative our grasp on our lives and our health is, how we all live with the illusion of protection... and maybe lose a little sleep in the process - this is the book for you.
on December 27, 2002
You Won't sleep until this book is done, and maybe not then! Another True and chilling book by Preston! Never mind Ebola, the hemorrhagic disease that was the main subject of Preston's 1994 #1 bestseller, The Hot Zone. What we really should be worrying about, explains Preston in this terrifying, cautionary new title, is smallpox, or variola. ...and today the variola virus only exists officially in two storage depots.. one in Russia, and the other at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta (in the freezer of the title).
To believe that variola is not held elsewhere, however, is nonsense, Says Preston, who delves into the probability that several nations, including Iraq, Iran, Russia and maybe Al-Qaeda, have recently worked, or are currently working, with genetically altered smallpox as a biological weapon!
Preston shows why even "normal" smallpox could (and would) sweep the globe in a matter of weeks killing millions, perhaps hundreds of millions! No one on the planet today has an immunity to this disease.
A chilling account of what countries have what Bio-weapons, and what happens if they use them. The research is excellent and accurate. Preston takes you through the recent Anthrax attacks, why they were "different" and what happens if a terrorist unleashes an easily genetically modified Smallpox weapon.
on January 8, 2005
The Demon in the Freezer is the informative and interesting tale of the eradication of smallpox. The book describes the techniques used to rid the world of this horrible disease and its eventual location in just two high security freezers worldwide. The reader is introduced to some of the most brilliant minds in science and reads about their reactions as their worst fears come true. It is revealed that smallpox, "the demon", may be present in more than two locations and if it were to be "set loose", its consequences would be devastating.
While The Demon is an informative book full of science and medical discovery, it includes too much unneeded description to be extraordinarily thrilling. Do we really need to know what color sweater Karl Heinz Richter was wearing on the 16th of January, 1970? Will that really add to our knowledge of bioweapons and scientific triumphs? No.
This book was meant to be a doomsday type of thriller. It was meant to make the reader think more about what is really going on around them. In reading this book, I did gain a great deal of knowledge about smallpox and other occurances in that area of science. However, I'm not necessarily more concerned with the prospects of it "getting loose" and killing everyone any more than I was before. I would suggest this book for anyone interested in the topics of medical science and biological weapons, however, this book is not necessarily for everyone.
on February 21, 2014
I read another book by this guy which was great. This one was so inferior that I had to look to be sure it was the same guy. This is a book about smallpox samples kept viable for no reason other than for "study' , when it has been eradicated from the human population. It is now in the hands of third world countries who have learned how to aerosol it for weapons. Sounds exciting doesn't it? I don't know how he did it but the author made it so boring I stopped reading it before it was over . WAY too much description of the appearance of various researchers and little real information about what's being done about the problem.
Like most kids of my generation I had read Preston's scary Ebola book, "The Hot Zone", but I had not gotten around to reading his book on smallpox. The volume benefits from Preston's masterly and riveting narrative-investigative style that always keeps you on the edge of your seat. His writing is a case study in understanding how even mundane observations and details about people and events can enrich good non-fiction writing.
Smallpox does not appear as dangerous as Ebola, but in some sense it's even more so because of its relatively slow and easy spread. As in the Hot Zone, some of the best accounts of the book feature high-strung and courageous scientists working in Level 4 hazardous areas, slicing up smallpox-ridden monkeys and looking at anthrax spores. The book focuses on the anthrax mailings after 9/11, on the amazingly successful smallpox eradication program which eradicated the disease in 1975 and the smallpox biowarfare program in the former Soviet Union.
The latter is probably the scariest part of the book. The Soviet Union kept on secretly working on smallpox even after the US and other countries dismantled their own programs in the 1970s. Something like 20 tons of smallpox have gone missing since the end of the Cold War and, encouraged by the eradication of the efforts, the WHO and other organizations have destroyed almost their entire stocks of smallpox vaccine. In addition there's no tested drug for smallpox. Combined with the ability to create engineered versions of the virus that are immune to vaccines, these three facts might contribute to a disaster of catastrophic proportions surpassing AIDS (at its peak smallpox was killing about 6 million people every year).
Fortunately there's a select few highly dedicated scientists and doctors who are trying to create new vaccines, but government regulations largely prevent them from working on the virus. As of now there are only two recognized places in the world where smallpox exists - the CDC in Atlanta and the Moscow Institute in Russia - but almost nobody thinks that these are the only two places. Hopefully we won't have to find out about the existence of other sources the hard way.
on November 12, 2015
I usually like reading true-crime books, and I generally don't seek out books written by any particular author; I just want a good read about a great story that I've heard about. But there is one exception: Jack Olsen. He may no longer be with us, but his books surely live on, and I'm always taking a peek to see if another one of his works has recently become available in the Kindle format. Some people have even called him "An American Treasure," and I don't have any problem with that statement.
And Richard Preston is surely right up there as well. This is my second read from him, the first being, "The Hot Zone," and I was mesmerized while reading that, just like I was mesmerized while reading "The Demon in the Freezer." With both of these gentlemen though, I will say that, if you read any of their works, you may have trouble sleeping at night. After all, Mr. Olsen liked to write about serial killers while Mr. Preston likes to write about viruses. And it's hard to say which one of these real-life scourges might kill you first.
Most authors use flowery language to get their points across, while neither of these gentlemen ever seem to add one unnecessary word. It's as if they write a chapter, backtrack, and then remove any words that are unneeded. It is the case that, when telling a story, words often do just get in the way; natural language is somewhat flawed, after all. But you wouldn't know it while reading the works from these two masters.
I do like how Mr. Preston describes a new character for the first time in a chapter. He must have a template, and he must follow that template religiously. You might read something like, "John Smith is a doctor at John Hopkins. He has gray hair, parted in the middle, with a slight frown on his face." Etc. I like it. Why reinvent the wheel, after all? But Mr. Preston's writings are far from just workmanlike; when he gets into the meat of a subject, you know that the potatoes are soon coming. However, you just hope that you'll be able to keep down a meal after reading an unsavory description of how some poor soul dies from, say, smallpox.
Keeping in the spirit of both writers, I'll keep this review short and sweet. But I will add the following: for fans of Richard Preston, I highly encourage you to try a book or two from Jack Olsen as well. You surely won't be disappointed, either way.