Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Demon in the Freezer : A True StoryThe Demon in the Freezer : A True Story by Richard Preston
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

With the first case of Ebola occurring in the U.S., I guess I chose the right time to read Richard Preston’s “The Demon in the Freezer” (2002). It is a non-fiction book that deals with the potential dangers of biological warfare. The main focus is on smallpox virus and anthrax bacterium, although the Ebola virus is frequently mentioned too.

The story begins in September 2001, one week after 9/11, when a letter to Senator Daschle's office in Washington D.C. is found to contain anthrax, and five people die as a result. The story then tracks back to 1970, when an outbreak of smallpox occurred in the small town of Meschede, Germany. A large portion of the book is about the Eradication (capital letter intended) effort, which united medical personnel of many countries on a quest to achieve global elimination of variola, the smallpox virus, which - according to the author - is generally believed to be the most dangerous virus to the human species. Variola was officially eradicated in 1979, although large supplies of the virus remain stored in the health agencies' vaults in U.S. and Russia (and, quite likely, in other countries too).

Several passages about the fight against smallpox are fascinating, for example the fragment that describes how a smoke-producing machine helped discover the mechanisms of the virus' travel through the hospital. I have also found the pages about insect viruses engrossing.

Richard Preston is known for his sensationalism, and this book is no exception. While the story about the smallpox eradication effort is deeply moving, most other sub-stories are written in a somewhat hysterical tone. Also, the author's attempts to "humanize" the protagonists are lame; why do we need to know that this or that doctor was a short and stout woman with brown eyes? Or that they drank whiskey or smoked cigars? What probably bothers me most, though, is that the book lacks focus; instead of telling one compelling story it is all over the place, jumping here and there.

The penultimate chapter is about virus engineering, which raises the prospect of horrible biological wars. I am way too old to worry about myself, but I am worrying about my child and my grandchildren.

An interesting and well-meaning book, if rather poorly written.

Two and a half stars.

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