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Demon in the Freezer by Richard Preston

Demon in the Freezer (original 2002; edition 2003)

by Richard Preston

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1,131297,247 (3.88)97
Title:Demon in the Freezer
Authors:Richard Preston
Info:Headline Paperbacks (2003), Paperback, 320 pages
Collections:Reviewed, Read but unowned
Tags:non-fiction, ultimate reading list - science, science, medicine, smallpox, anthrax, epidemics, biological warfare, biological weapons, biology, bioterrorism, disease, epidemiology, health, creative non-fiction, infectious disease, medical, microbiology, viruses

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The Demon in the Freezer by Richard Preston (2002)


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2002 non-fiction about biological weapon agents smallpox and anthrax, and the American governmental defensive measures toward them. The book is mostly an account of the Smallpox Eradication Program, a discussion about smallpox’s status as a potential bioterrorism agent, and the controversy about the remaining samples. Demon in the Freezer is very much a product of its time, having been published in 2002, just after the anthrax attacks. I really thought this book was going to be about anthrax. In fact, the first few chapters and last couple chapters were about the post-9/11 anthrax attacks. But what this book was actually about was small pox. Having been born in the eighties, I never knew just how terrifying smallpox really could be -- I mean, it’s one of the most virulent diseases on the planet, so lots of people got it, right? Holy crap, smallpox make ebola look like small potatoes. Consider me educated.
( )
  lyrrael | Oct 17, 2015 |
I'd just as soon have not read Richard Preston's The Demon in the Freezer if it meant I could remain blissfully ignorant of the disturbing reality that vaccine-resistant smallpox and anthrax is undoubtedly already in the unhinged hands of jihadists or other sadistic dogmatists around the world, and that a large scale bioterrorism attack on North American soil is more a question of when than if. Yet with the bumbling bureaucratic bozos at the Pentagon running amok recently, FedEx'ing live samples of anthrax by mistake to more than fifty unsuspecting laboratories across the States and overseas, perhaps the deadliest likes of Isis are the least of the Western world's worries after all. Look in the mirror for a change, drunk Uncle Sam!

The Demon in the Freezer makes me wish I didn't know how to read -- almost -- it's that unnerving. I'd rather not know that the former Soviet Union was producing weapons-grade smallpox by the ton as late as 2001 on the eve of 9/11, and that today -- or so say several Russian scientists who've since defected to the U.S. -- the authorities in the former-USSR have no idea where those tons of weapons-grade smallpox went. Despite the worldwide "eradication" of smallpox in India in 1978, the USA and the former-USSR decided to freeze samples of the virus in order to keep it "safely stored," presumably as a "safeguard" pretext in the event it got into the "wrong hands" and a vaccine needed to be manufactured from the stored samples in an emergency.

Had our wise global protectors simply destroyed all smallpox in the first place, like they were supposed to do when whatever treaty it was got signed and contractually obliged them to do so, no one would have to worry about any virulent vials of smallpox getting smuggled into the wrong hands would they? Oh, but it's more politically complicated than that, Freeque, simply doing the right thing and destroying every ounce of it. Yeah, and only because the bigwigs in this world don't trust each another enough to follow through on their historic, much ballyhooed agreements.

The Demon In The Freezer reads like the finest of John le Carré's espionage thrillers, replete as it is with international intrigue and suspense. Can you imagine United Nations inspectors today confronting Vladimir Putin's covert bioweapons operations in Russia? Neither can I. Good luck, Doomed Earth, against vaccine-resistant smallpox and anthrax! ( )
3 vote EnriqueFreeque | Jul 18, 2015 |
A very scary look at how easily the smallpox virus could be used as a bioterrorism agent. ( )
  mojomomma | Jul 2, 2015 |
Concerning my reading, it is style over substance that I go for. If there happens to be beauty in both, I rate highly. This book was definitely substance first, style last. But the substance was so substantial it still gets a tick from me.

The Demon in the Freezer is in this case (I wonder how many cases of there being demons in the freezer there are?) the smallpox virus. Officially eradicated in 1979, scientists kept specimens of the virus alive and frozen. With the increasing threat of terror invasions of the biological weapon type, there is now a school of thought that says all stocks of the virus should be destroyed so that it cannot fall into the wrong hands and be used against human populations. This virus is not a nice one. You can get if from someone easily and unknowingly before they even know they have it, and for ten days after they show the first flu-like symptoms. Its spread in today's interwoven societies would be exponential. You die in pain and slowly if you are the one in three that it is likely to kill. This is all before the notion that stocks of the smallpox virus are probably held in freezers in Iraq, North Korea and other states of questionable repute. That they could be being modified on a genetic level to resist vaccines is of great concern to scientists and governments around the world.

Concerns about other biological weapons are discussed here too, in particular anthrax which was distributed post 9/11 via the mail in the US and proved to be both deadly to those who were exposed to its spores, and very costly to clean up after.

On a more lighthearted note, my favourite part of the book follows:

"Pox hunters have so far discovered mousepox, monkeypox, skunkpox, pigpox, goatpox, camelpox, cowpox, pseudo-cowpox, buffalopox, gerbilpox, several deerpoxes, chamoispox, a couple of sealpoxes, turkeypox, canarypox, pigeonpox, starlingpox, peacockpox, sparrowpox, juncopox, mynahpox, quailpox, parrotpox and toadpox........There's dolphinpox, penguinpox, two kangaroopoxes, raccoonpox and quokkapox........snakepox and crocpox."

But fear not, only the animal in the title gets the virus just as smallpox only uses humans as its host. This was a fast and fantastic read. ( )
  Ireadthereforeiam | Jan 21, 2014 |
I purchased this book for myself in e-book format to see how they work; quite well much to my surprise, at least in the RocketBook format.

Preston, author of the virus-based thriller Hot Zone examines the factual biological threat of smallpox, otherwise known as variola. There are poxviruses that exist in almost all animal species, and one apparently crossed the species barrier several thousand years ago to become the most devastating killer of humans, superseding the plague by far. It's also one of the first diseases to have been officially completely eliminated from the world, except for two known storage points: one in the United States, the other in Russia.

Preston suggests that several rogue nations could be working on it as a biological weapon. The vaccinations most of us older folks received years ago are no longer immunizing, lasting only about five years.

The genome, i.e. letters of the genetic code, of variola is one of the longest of any virus and it has about two hundred genes. This complexity is used by the virus to defeat the immune system of the human host. The AIDS virus, in contrast, has only ten genes. "HIV is a bicycle, while smallpox is a Cadillac loaded with tailfins and every option in the book."

Preston is certain that smallpox will again be unleashed upon an unsuspecting world by terrorists. The virus floats through the air, traveling like lightning from victim to victim, a biological chain reaction. Studies done in a hospital in Meschede, Germany where a smallpox victim - he had arrived with the disease from outside the country - had been taken in 1970 showed that people could be infected even when they were outside the quarantine zone; it traveled much as smoke would throughout a building, even traveling into windows from the outside. The only way to stop it was massive vaccinations, which prevented the virus from moving outside the area.

The current vaccine produces serious adverse effects in a small number of those who receive it. It also might not be potent against a reengineered smallpox. Researchers have shown how easily the mousepox strain can be changed to become lethal to mice that normally are immune to it, - so easy, that an expert said a bright high school student could do it using publicly available information.

Conventional wisdom was that smallpox could not be transmitted into other non-human animals. It would be useful to induce the disease into other primates to be able to test newer forms of a vaccine. Fortunately, or unfortunately, that barrier was crossed May 31, 2001 when four monkeys were infected with one billion particles of smallpox virus. Two died. For the first time in history, a non-human animal had been infected with smallpox.

Smallpox had been declared completely eradicated in 1980, thanks to a heroic effort by the World Health Organization. Quite a controversy has surrounded the maintenance of the smallpox virus that has been kept potent in two storage facility freezers: one at the CDC in Atlanta, the other at a former germ-warfare facility in Siberia. The Russians had loaded tons of the virus into warheads during the eighties - thanks, guys - but these were to have been destroyed. Preston thinks that small amounts have been secreted out of the country into the hands of terrorist groups.

Preston interviewed Russian and American bioweapon experts who sit around and blithely discuss how easy it would be to create Armageddon, perhaps just by using a garden sprayer to deliver the disease particles. Air travel and constant movement around the planet would do the rest. Perhaps Bush should think about shutting down airports. Time to resurrect train travel, anyway.

Preston mixes anecdotes with science and detail to create a frightening view of a possible future, one much more lethal than nuclear war.

Just forget about sleeping if you read this book. ( )
  ecw0647 | Sep 30, 2013 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0345466632, Mass Market Paperback)

On December 9, 1979, smallpox, the most deadly human virus, ceased to exist in nature. After eradication, it was confined to freezers located in just two places on earth: the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta and the Maximum Containment Laboratory in Siberia. But these final samples were not destroyed at that time, and now secret stockpiles of smallpox surely exist. For example, since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the subsequent end of its biological weapons program, a sizeable amount of the former Soviet Union's smallpox stockpile remains unaccounted for, leading to fears that the virus has fallen into the hands of nations or terrorist groups willing to use it as a weapon. Scarier yet, some may even be trying to develop a strain that is resistant to vaccines. This disturbing reality is the focus of this fascinating, terrifying, and important book.

A longtime contributor to The New Yorker and author of the bestseller The Hot Zone, Preston is a skillful journalist whose work flows like a science fiction thriller. Based on extensive interviews with smallpox experts, health workers, and members of the U.S. intelligence community, The Demon in the Freezer details the history and behavior of the virus and how it was eventually isolated and eradicated by the heroic individuals of the World Health Organization. Preston also explains why a battle still rages between those who want to destroy all known stocks of the virus and those who want to keep some samples alive until a cure is found. This is a bitterly contentious point between scientists. Some worry that further testing will trigger a biological arms race, while others argue that more research is necessary since there are currently too few available doses of the vaccine to deal with a major outbreak. The anthrax scare of October, 2001, which Preston also writes about in this book, has served to reinforce the present dangers of biological warfare.

As Preston eloquently states in this powerful book, this scourge, once contained, was let loose again due to human weakness: "The virus's last strategy for survival was to bewitch its host and become a source of power. We could eradicate smallpox from nature, but we could not uproot the virus from the human heart." --Shawn Carkonen

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 17:59:37 -0400)

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A true-life thriller about the return of smallpox in an engineered form. Eradicated in 1979, smallpox now has crept onto the international black market, where it is prized as the mother of all biological weapons. This is the story of a crusade by three doctors to stay a step ahead of the bioterrorists and neutralize the most contagious pathogen known.… (more)

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