I first encountered Richard Preston in 1995, when I picked up his fantastic book The Hot Zone. The thrilling true story of an outbreak of the lethal Ebola virus in Reston, Virginia in 1989, it convinced me to become a virologist and gave me something to write about in the opening chapter of my book, Mousetrapped. (Spoiler alert: I ain’t a virologist.) While in the meantime I’ve read some of Preston’s other books, it’s only now – fifteen years later – that I’ve finally got around to reading what is essentially The Hot Zone Part II, The Demon in the Freezer.
“In one of the greatest feats in modern science, the devastating small pox virus, the worst disease in human history, was purged from the planet in 1979. In the interests of research, two stores were kept: one at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and one at a Russian virology institute. But the demon in the freezer has been set loose. Iraq and North Korea are almost certainly hiding illegal stocks of the virus. Now Richard Preston relates in fascinating detail the story of the eradication of smallpox, and introduces us to some of the most sophisticated scientific minds in America, past and present. On the front lines of the fight to protect the civilian population against biological weapons is virologist Peter Jarhling. He is leading a team of scientists in controversial – and successful – experiments with live smallpox, reawakening the virus at the CDC, and seeking to find a cure for the disease. The moving story of his trials and triumphs, set against the backdrop of the virus’s history, frame Preston’s cutting analysis of the future of our nation’s biodefense.”
There are whole sections of bookshops filled with titles claiming to be “popular science” that a layperson would find only ever so slightly less nonsensical than a scientific paper in the Lancet. But Preston truly makes science popular – he takes complicated ideas, experiments and events and makes them not only easy to understand, but as fascinating as any exposé and as taunt as any thriller. Many of his books have stemmed from articles he wrote for The New Yorker – including The Hot Zone and The Demon in the Freezer – and as with all his titles, he offers you a story that would have otherwise slipped unnoticed behind the headlines.
Just as Jarhling and his team are “awakening” smallpox stocks in a maximum security lab at the CDC, terror hits America. On 11th September 2001, virologists in biohazard suits are informed of the situation through a series of handwritten notes, as the air circulation system inside their helmets make hearing difficult. The first says, ‘A plane crashed into the World Trade Center.’ The second says, ‘Another plane crashed into WTC.’ Then, ‘Pentagon – plane down in PA.’ An order comes through telling them to evacuate; the bio-safety labs in the heart of the CDC campus are hot with live smallpox virus and thus the ideal terrorist target. They hurry to make their experiments safe and leave the lab in some kind of order, until another message is relayed: initiate emergency procedures.
This basically translates into get the hell of there now.
A week later, five letters are mailed from Trenton, New Jersey. They are addressed to the offices of ABC News, CBS News, NBC News and the New York Post, all in New York City, and the National Enquirer, based in Florida. On October 9, two more letters are sent, both to US Senators. Each envelope contains spores of anthrax mixed with fine silica (glass) which helped it escape from the seal envelopes, putting not only the recipients at risk, but all the postal workers who handled it en route. It’s attack that will eventually infect 22 and kill 5, and USAMRIID’s facilities and scientists are the powerhouse of the ensuing investigation, dubbed “Amerithrax” by the FBI.
Because while an epidemic of smallpox may be a thing of the past, its use in a terrorist attack is very much a possibility in our future.
One of the most chilling things about this story is not even in the book, as it came to light almost five years after its publication in 2003. For all his talent, Preston simply couldn’t have imagined the twists and turns the investigation would take in the months and years after he wrote “The End.”
Dr. Bruce Edwards Ivins was a senior bio-defense analyst working at USAMRIID who held two patents for anthrax vaccine technology. He was also a recovering alcoholic who had struggled with depression, and some friends and colleagues had been privy to a spectrum of behavior that ranged from amusingly oddball (eating a mixture of tuna, peas and yogurt from lunch) to darkly inappropriate (Ivins, for instance, was obsessed with a US sorority, Kappa Kappa Gamma. He once edited the society’s Wikipedia page, added derogatory remarks). In 2004, he sent friends a Christmas card that was an electron microscope image of anthrax spores arranged to form the words “Happy Holidays” and in 2001, while everyone at Fort Detrick – including Ivins – was working round the clock to assist the FBI with their investigation, he emailed photographs of himself handling the infamous samples to his family, friends and colleagues, including an FBI agent who was working on the case. One of the recipients noticed that Ivins wasn’t wearing gloves in the pictures, and was suddenly struck by a horrible thought: Bruce did it. He’s behind the anthrax attacks. The FBI shifted the focus of their investigation onto Ivins, and were soon inclined to agree.
But in 2008, just before charges were due to be brought against him, Dr. Ivins committed suicide. Later that same year the FBI declared the case closed, although many of Ivin’s friends and colleagues contest the belief that the troubled doctor was guilty.
The postscript gets even more complicated. Another USAMRIID employee, Dr. Steven Hatfill, become a “person of interest” to the FBI in 2002, following an invasive “trial by media” and a concerted effort by a small group in the medical community to sully his name. Dr. Hatfill would settle a $5 million lawsuit with the Justice Department in 2008, but his career lays in ruins.
If you were Mr. Preston’s editor, wouldn’t you be raising the idea of an updated edition…? I know I would.
The Demon in the Freezer both enthralled and terrified me, but it also had me feeling a little nostalgic for a time – a simpler, more naive time – when I thought that by now I’d have a PhD in virology, a job at USAMRIID or the CDC and plenty of material for volume one of my virologist memoirs. (And that the queasiness that prevents me from dissecting dead monkeys could be overcome somehow. It was just a minor detail.) There’s still something that draws me into the subject like no other, except for maybe space. In fact, were I offered three wishes right now, they would be:
- A book deal
- A guided tour of the original Mission Control Center in Houston, where the Apollo missions took place
- A guided tour of the Biosafety Level 4 labs at USAMRIID. I know I couldn’t go in, but apparently you can look into some of the labs through windows. And they let Preston in, didn’t they?
But I know that it wasn’t so much the virology that attracted me, but the shine of doing something out of the ordinary.
And it’s not too late for that. Back to that novel…