87 of 93 people found the following review helpful
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
41 of 43 people found the following review helpful
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.
33 of 35 people found the following review helpful
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.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
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.
16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
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.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
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.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
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.
11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on October 16, 2002
Since I initially read and reviewed THE DEMON IN THE FREEZER back in November 2002, the specter of war in Iraq has continued to spotlight just how prophetic Preston's work is. Yet, as I've mentioned in radio and television interviews on my own novel of bioterrorism, the untold story of this horrific subject remains the distinct possibility that the current smallpox vaccine may not be effective against the bioengineered strain of variola most likely in the hands of rogue nations and, potentially, terrorist groups.
We are indeed in danger of experienceing the final epidemic.
This, despite the fact that Richard Preston detailed the danger of an engineered smallpox strain (most likely, a legacy of the massive Soviet bioweapon program) in DEMON.
In the eleven months I spent researching my novel of bioterrorism, ..., I interviewed dozens of experts in biological weapons, terrorism and medicine.
And everywhere I went, I found myself following the footprints of Richard Preston, whose knowledge and professionalism sets the standard in writing about this dark subject. Preston's a hard act to follow-- particularly so because his latest book, The Demon In The Freezer, is all so terribly true.
Written in an episodic style, the book has the feel of a journal, albeit one written by a man quietly horrified by the revelations he records.
The book centers around the high probability --so high as to constitute a virtual certainity-- of what itself is a horrifying fact: that the variola virus --smallpox, history's greatest mass murderer of humanity-- has come back from its official eradication as a disease in the mid-'70s to emerge today as a biological weapon possessed by a number of rogue states (most likely among them, Iraq) and potentially accessable to fanatical terrorists driven by a hatred of Western society.
Preston builds his case through a narrative based on interviews with experts --perhaps the most disturbing, an almost pastoral description of a meeting between Ken Alibeck (who defected from the Soviet bioweapon program, which produced weaponized smallpox by the metric ton and for whom Alibeck invented a particularly lethal variant of anthrax) and former U.S. biowarrior Bill Patrick at the latter's Maryland home. Here, Preston records how the pair chat about mega-death and the ease of bioweapon delivery, even to the point of Patrick using a mundane garden sprayer to send a plume of simulated bio-agent into the gentle breeze, which he posits will carry it to a major urban center within hours. In my other reviews on this subject (Alibeck's BIOHAZARD, for instance) I've already expressed my jaw-dropping astonishment at the appallingly casual attitude so often in evidence among the former high priests of biowarfare. Never has it been portrayed so revealingly as it is in Preston's account.
But anthrax, lethal though it may be, is incapable of human-to-human contagion; as such, it becomes only a subnote in "Demon." Always, Preston returns to the real threat: the virtual certainity that a genetically-engineered version of smallpox has been developed-- a variant that is unaffected by any existing vaccine and which has been further tweaked to enhance its ability to kill. Not only does Preston tell us how this viral monster has probably been created, he lets us follow him to a modest laboratory. Here, a bio-geneticist allows Preston to participate in an almost-identical gene-splicing process involving mousepox virus, a cousin of smallpox.
A reasonably bright high-school student could do the same, if he had access to mousepox... or smallpox. The genie has indeed escaped the bottle, and awaits only a monster to make the first wish to bring on the Final Epidemic of our nightmares.
"The Demon In The Freezer" recounts a mounting litany of horror, phrased in Preston's always calm style, and includes the author's own reaction to such events as the World Trade Center attacks, the subsequent anthrax-in-the-mail terrorism, even to today's probability of war in Iraq.
And then the book ends, as abruptly as a sharp intake of breath.
Wisely, Preston does not attempt a profound summation, for he had already known what his readers now realize. Doomsday viruses are in the hands of the ruthless and possibly the insane; the survival of humanity teeters in tentative balance.
As we wait, in a justified fear Preston has documented so well.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on March 7, 2010
In The Demon in the Freezer, author Richard Preston pulls the reader from the modern doom-and-gloom world of HIV and N1H1, and into the even-more-unimaginably-horrific universe of ebola, anthrax, and smallpox.
Contrary to what the title suggests (even though one new to smallpox may find it not-so-obvious), the book actually provides additional information on the anthrax attacks of 9/11, the impact of ebola had on the globe, and much more. Of course, the majority still revolves around smallpox, especially the push toward its eradication. Basically, when he began writing this book, it looked like Preston was prepared with a college textbook's load of research.
Despite the book's background on medicine and top-secret government bio-hazard research labs, which may be difficult to understand, the author spares the reader the necessity of coming equipped with the internet or dictionary using well-thought out analogies that characterize each concept. Preston's descriptions keep his book flowing smoothly, at least for the beginning.
Unfortunately, as with all other books, not everything in Preston's work is flawless. The book has very few but major problems, ranging from repetitive sentence structure to overused details that simply kill the story, if there was any actual plot to start with. There are so many instances where Preston flips between storylines/time frames. For example, whereas the reader is looking at the evolution of smallpox, in a flip of a page they are back in the 21st century, in a biohazard lab. Even what was supposed to be the climax of the book (the government research facility that clashes with smallpox) tips towards the "weak" end of the suspense scale.
I say that the ending was where Preston really "crashed and burned." The beginning of the book is a quiet thriller, beautifully written so that that the reader can indulge in the world of medical research and terrorist threats. However, as the book comes closer to the end, the reader is presented with lifeless, monotonous narration from the author. Preston probably had all of this "good stuff" in his arsenal of research that was readily available for his use for the end of the book, but in the very end he failed to use it in a way that would make his story consistently enticing. And even if he did have mediocre ones that he did not use in his list, he could have at least made an effort to elaborate and improve on those. And those details, which Preston still kept up from the very start of the book, didn't make anything better.
The book was good (good, not great) overall, but that sour aftertaste at the very end was just something I couldn't wash out.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Few writers have the talent to parlay a non-fiction work about viruses into a mass-market paperback, but Richard Preston has done it twice. "The Demon in the Freezer" focuses on many scary aspects of smallpox, and delights in the details of our demise should we encounter our old foe. For us today, reading about the skin completely separating from the body due to a halo of pus is both repulsive and fascinating; but the world once had an everyday vocabulary for these symptoms. With little natural immunity left around the globe and the smallpox shot the most dangerous immunization you can take, "The Demon in the Freezer" points to a nasty vulnerability.
Preston talks with Ken Alibek, mastermind of the Russian bio-warfare program, and author of another excellent work "Biohazard." Also covered in detail are the anthrax attacks and the investigation of scientist Steven Hatfill.