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Book Review

An Unsettling Look at the Bioterror Threat of Smallpox



A True Story

by Richard Preston

Random House

256 pp., $24.95


Richard Preston's unsettling "The Demon in the Freezer" is a book timely in ways most of us would rather not think about.

It is about terrorism with biological weapons. Mostly, it is about the threat of smallpox as a weapon of mass destruction.

Preston obviously began work on the book before Sept. 11, 2001, and before the terrorism by anthrax that followed the airplane attacks.

But he added three chapters on the anthrax sent by mail to several targets, among them Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw. The anthrax-tainted letters killed five people and made about a dozen ill.

The case has not been solved. Preston, like others, believes the sender was someone who worked in American anthrax laboratories and used American-grown anthrax spores.

Preston takes us to the laboratory at Ft. Detrick, Md., which is the center for developing defenses against bioterrorism and assists in countering bioterrorist attacks. This lab was the center of Preston's previous nonfiction book, "The Hot Zone," about the Ebola virus. The lab was a focus, along with the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and the FBI, of the effort to trace the anthrax.

The lab is also the center of an effort focused on the smallpox vaccine, should it be employed as a weapon. After introducing the reader to the lab, Preston shifts to his principal theme, smallpox as a potential weapon.

The disease was finally eradicated from nature in the 1970s after a program that lasted several years and spanned the globe. Preston believes all traces of it could have been destroyed in about 1980, and should have been. But under pressure from some scientists, and from the British Ministry of Defense and the Pentagon, he writes, the American government decided to keep some samples for experimental purposes, as did the then-Soviet Union.

Under international agreements the virus is supposed to be kept, frozen and in special containers cooled with liquid nitrogen, in only two places in the world--at the CDC and at a location in Russia. But Preston fears others may have it. He is especially afraid that scientists recklessly working with the virus may produce a super smallpox strain against which there may be no defense.

He argues that smallpox is the most virulent disease humans ever have known since it first jumped to the species from an unknown animal between 3,000 and 10,000 years ago.

Therefore, the successful effort by a handful of doctors and their helpers around the world to get rid of it in nature was without parallel in human experience.

"No greater deed," he writes, "was ever done in medicine, and no better thing ever came from the human spirit." He says that the disease was killing 2 million people a year in the years before its eradication. Getting rid of it has already saved about 60 million lives.

These statements, which come at the end of "The Demon in the Freezer," are the most assertive, the most charged with the author's feelings, of any in the book. For Preston, a writer for the New Yorker, is consummately a writer in the New Yorker style--understated, rarely personal.

Without comment, he tells his stories, letting them speak for themselves through the people involved.

He has an especially effective account of a smallpox outbreak in Germany in 1970, during which the authorities stopped its spread by using the "ring" method, isolating patients and vaccinating potential victims in ever-widening circles until it could spread no more.

His story of a German child dying in terrible pain in isolation from her family speaks for itself of the horror of the disease. He has his heroes, chief among them the American epidemiologist D.A. Henderson, who led the eradication effort and opposed retention of the virus for experimentation.

Preston, however, too often muddles his story with irrelevant detail. Yet when the reader chops through the stylistic underbrush and makes trails connecting the main points that Preston declines to connect himself, the picture becomes chillingly clear: Although eradicated in the wild, smallpox is still a threat frozen in the laboratories, and it is man who put it there and keeps it there.

These are the last fateful words in "The Demon in the Freezer": "We could eradicate smallpox from nature, but we could not uproot the virus from the human heart."

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