Weapons of Mass Destruction

The Demon in the Freezer    A True Story

by Richard Preston, 241 pp., Random House 2002  ....   reviewed 9 December 2002 by David P. Stern


      This book is meant to scare the reader, and it does. You come to realize that next to the ever-present threat of nuclear war, another threat has appeared on the scene, one just as ominous--the threat of disease agents such as anthrax, plague and smallpox. Much cheaper, much easier to produce, much simpler to deliver and at least as deadly. They can be released secretly and their source may remain as untraceable as the source of the anthrax scare of October 2001, which was and remains a mystery.

      Preston has tackled related subjects in "The Hot Zone" (fact) and "The Cobra Event" (fiction). This story opens with the 2001 anthrax outbreak, but it quickly shifts to Preston's greater concern, smallpox, which unlike anthrax is highly infectious. Supposedly smallpox was stamped out in the 1970s by a persistent policy of vaccination and containment, described in detail. Supposedly, the only samples left of the virus were kept frozen in guarded vaults in Atlanta and Moscow (giving the book its title). Supposedly... but we now know that in the1980s the Soviet Union's military establishment produced smallpox viruses by the ton, for use in special warheads, which were also tested. That effort is over, thanks God, but no one is sure how much of the material escaped destruction. Neither does anyone know what unauthorized stocks of the virus are kept by other military establishments, and in what nations.

      Smallpox can spread rapidly, as in a local outbreak in Germany in 1970, whose story the book follows closely. Worse: genetic engineering might be able to modify the virus, so that even vaccinated individuals will not be safe. That, at least, was demonstrated in laboratory mice using mousepox, a close relative of the smallpox virus. It would seem like suicidal madness to create a smallpox virus modified in this manner, but warped minds do exist, and the task requires only a small lab with standard equipment--and of course, an illicit sample of smallpox.

      Richard Preston writes skillfully, in a matter-of-fact style free of hyperbole. He needs none--he has ample material to work with, all of it frightening. His book covers many interesting episodes and introduces quite a few unique individuals. You may not like his message, but it will wake you up to what the phrase "weapons of mass destruction" really means.


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Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
     Mail to Dr.Stern:   david("at" symbol)phy6.org .

Last updated 9 December 2002