The Demon in the Freezer


Richard Preston




Date Reviewed:

December 8, 2006

his book feels like a rush job. I bet Preston was writing and research and book on smallpox, when the anthrax poisonings occurred right after 9/11 – his editors probably thought big money could be made if they could get out a book while the anthrax scare was still a news story, so he added a few chapters about anthrax to a book on smallpox, and they published it. I don’t think it does a good job telling either story.

The hardcover version I read is only 233 pages long. It has 8 chapters. Each chapter title is on an otherwise blank page, sometimes surrounded by blank pages. For example:

Page 1: chapter 1 title. Page 2 blank.Page 22: blank. Page 23: chapter title. Page 24: blank A total of 19 pages in a hardcover book with 233 pages are blank or are chapter titles! Nearly 10% of the book! And when Preston does write, many of the paragraphs contain padded, irrelevant information that sound like a child trying to stretch a book report to meet a specified word count. Page 183, for example contains these insights:

“Where’s the bathroom” muttered Jahrling to the crowd. Someone directed him.

The meeting took place in the Roosevelt room, which has ornate high ceilings and oak doors with brass fittings.

Many more chairs were placed around the walls.

Jarhling was wearing his grey suit with a candy-striped shirt and a snappy necktie.

The doors were closed by the Secret Service.

This is not great journalism.

The first chapter is about the anthrax scare. Anthrax then disappears until chapter 7, on page 161. Everything in between is about smallpox. The only interesting part of the entire anthrax story is Jahrling’s meeting with Ashcroft – the point of the meeting is to find out if the anthrax poisonings can be blamed on Iraq. This is October 2001, just after the World Trade Center. Clearly, the adminstration is looking for an excuse to attack Iraq. However, Jahrling says the anthrax looks nothing like the known Iraqi anthrax. The meeting ends soon afterward.

The chapters on smallpox are also poorly written. Preston spends a lot of time telling us about experiments by researchers to find away to infect monkeys with smallpox. Up until now, only humans can be infected by smallpox. Obviously, it would be immoral to test smallpox vaccines on humans. So these researchers try to infect the monkeys. But why? Smallpox has been eradicated, why is a vaccine necessary? Although smallpox no longer occurs in nature, it does remain in US and Russian freezers, preserved for “scientific purposes”. Unfortunately, Preston offers evidence that the Soviet Union researched ways of making super-lethal smallpox, by subjecting the smallpox to near lethal doses of vaccine, and then growing huge amounts of the surviving bugs. This repeated stressing of the smallpox renders a vaccine useless.

Preston also tells of a researcher who changed one gene in a monkeypox virus (monkeypox is quite similar to smallpox, but it can not harm humans), and found that monkeys previously immunized to monkeypox all died when exposed to this new virus-with-a-single-gene-altered. Preston assures us that any high school biologist could perform the same gene swapping technique on smallpox.

Reading these chapters made me wonder why the US researcher are trying to make a new vaccine – obviously, if smallpox is set loose on humanity again, it will be a deliberate biological attack, and the unleashed smallpox is sure to be altered to make any vaccine useless. Unfortunately, all we can do is wait until some new virus is unleashed, and then isolate it, and figure out how to beat it. Indeed, the fact that the USA is known to be doing research on smallpox is destabilizing, it only encourages other states to also do research. Plus, the research center itself becomes a target for terrorists. When the planes crash into the World Trade Center, the scientists fear that they might be hit next, and have an emergency evacuation.

There is some interesting information in this book, especially the details provided by the defectors from the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, too much of this book is padded. The writing is poor. Preston tries to make it read like a true life thriller, but it falls flat. Smallpox and anthrax are interesting stories, they are very real threats, but wait for a better writer to tell those stories, and skip this book.