Sunday, February 1, 2009

Book Review: The Demon in the Freezer

Several people have recommended books to me, all of which sound good and I hope to get to in time. Let's see, so far there':
Inspired by your literary enthusiasm I thought I'd add the occasional brief book recommendation of my own to the blog.

Richard Preston wrote a bestselling 'The Hot Zone' which consists of a gripping account of an outbreak of a strain of the Ebola virus among monkeys in a Virginia laboratory. He followed this up with a book of fiction 'The Cobra Event', that apparently scared then President Clinton into taking bioterrorism more seriously. A third book, The Demon in the Freezer, is a return to non-fiction and combines two stories in one, since real life events obviously took a turn for the unexpected during the books writing. Much of the book is concerned with the elimination, and then subsequent weaponisation, of smallpox. But this is interwoven with the story of the 2001 anthrax attacks in the US. As usual Preston is at his best explaining what scientists actually do.

In chapter 4 he describes the Soviet bioweapons program at the Biopreparat facility and how this came to the attention of the UK and the US in the late 1980's via a couple of high profile defectors. First Vladimir Pasechnik and later Ken Alibek. Ken Alibek is a whole other story.

In these days of gene splicing, genetic engineering and cloning it is easy to overlook the simple power of selection.The relevant bit here is the description of how the Soviet Union created antibiotic resistant strains of bubonic plague:

One of the principal weapons was genetically modified (GM) plague that was resistant to antibiotics. The Soviet microbiologists had created this GM plague with brute-force methods: they had taken natural plague and had exposed it again and again to powerful antibiotics, and in this way they forced the evolution of drug-resistant strains.

I like the way he gets a quote from Stephen King on the back of the jacket - 'One of the most horrifying things I've ever read in my whole life.' It's like the official stamp of scary.

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