The Demon in the Freezer

I suspect when Richard Preston started writing The Demon in the Freezer, he intended the book to be entirely about smallpox — it’s eradication and potential resurrection, either by accident, warfare or terrorism. But after the anthrax-laced postal mailings that occurred shortly after the 9/11 attacks, the author felt compelled to merge the anthrax investigation into his work-in-progress.

It’s just a theory, but that would explain the book’s split personality. Although the back cover of this paperback edition only mentions the fight against smallpox, the account begins with the initial anthrax attacks, then flashes back more than twenty years to the smallpox eradication program. The history of the eradication and subsequent debate and research on smallpox occupy the remainder of the book until the end, when the two diseases/bioweapons are linked — the anthrax investigators worry about whether the anthrax mailings might contain smallpox, too. If so, it would have been a far deadlier and catastrophic event.

This “in the end, all shall be made clear” progression smacks of a good detective story, and indeed the author provides most of the gripping elements of a good mystery — the various protagonists track smallpox outbreaks, investigate suspected bioweapons research facilities in Russia, attempt to recreate smallpox in lab animals and of course pursue the elusive anthrax mailer. (In one twist, a bioweapons researcher who participated in the fight against smallpox becomes one of the anthrax suspects)

The book also feels like a horror story at times. The author’s gory description of smallpox effects on its victims is reminiscent of his earlier book on the Ebola Virus, The Hot Zone. And he does in fact make reference to Ebola while describing smallpox symptoms. Although the depiction is vivid, the author seems to relish phrases like “bleeding out”, and all the oozing pustules actually detract from the gravity of the subject.

After a while, the gruesome narration conjures up images of a Troma picture and, as with his earlier Ebola work, it seems improbable that anyone could possibly survive these diseases, but they do. Combined with the lack of much background treatment of anthrax, and a minor omission where a Secure Telephone Unit is referred to as a “stew” phone apparently without recognition of the acronym, I wonder if the author has traded off timeliness and drama for thorough research.

But leaving the science aside, this book serves up some interesting and useful background on the bioterror threats that populate the news these days. Bioweapons were a pretext for invading Iraq, yet Russia apparently has been actively researching and manufacturing anthrax and smallpox until a few years ago.

The potential adverse effect of the smallpox vaccine on some people is old news. Perhaps most disturbing is the potential to genetically modify smallpox to negate the existing vaccine.

Unfortunately, the most distressing aspect of this book is the real-life subject — unlike a typical whodunit, there is no sense of closure. Although the anthrax case was eventually solved, the bioterror threat is here to stay.

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