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The Demon in the Freezer: A True Story [Mass Market Paperback]

Richard Preston
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (76 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Aug. 26 2003
“The bard of biological weapons captures
the drama of the front lines.”

-Richard Danzig, former secretary of the navy


The first major bioterror event in the United States-the anthrax attacks in October 2001-was a clarion call for scientists who work with “hot” agents to find ways of protecting civilian populations against biological weapons. In The Demon in the Freezer, his first nonfiction book since The Hot Zone, a #1 New York Times bestseller, Richard Preston takes us into the heart of Usamriid, the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Maryland, once the headquarters of the U.S. biological weapons program and now the epicenter of national biodefense.

Peter Jahrling, the top scientist at Usamriid, a wry virologist who cut his teeth on Ebola, one of the world’s most lethal emerging viruses, has ORCON security clearance that gives him access to top secret information on bioweapons. His most urgent priority is to develop a drug that will take on smallpox-and win. Eradicated from the planet in 1979 in one of the great triumphs of modern science, the smallpox virus now resides, officially, in only two high-security freezers-at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and in Siberia, at a Russian virology institute called Vector. But the demon in the freezer has been set loose. It is almost certain that illegal stocks are in the possession of hostile states, including Iraq and North Korea. Jahrling is haunted by the thought that biologists in secret labs are using genetic engineering to create a new superpox virus, a smallpox resistant to all vaccines.

Usamriid went into a state of Delta Alert on September 11 and activated its emergency response teams when the first anthrax letters were opened in New York and Washington, D.C. Preston reports, in unprecedented detail, on the government’s response to the attacks and takes us into the ongoing FBI investigation. His story is based on interviews with top-level FBI agents and with Dr. Steven Hatfill.

Jahrling is leading a team of scientists doing controversial experiments with live smallpox virus at CDC. Preston takes us into the lab where Jahrling is reawakening smallpox and explains, with cool and devastating precision, what may be at stake if his last bold experiment fails.


From the Hardcover edition.

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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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Never mind Ebola, the hemorrhagic disease that was the main subject of Preston's 1994 #1 bestseller, The Hot Zone. What we really should be worrying about, explains Preston in this terrifying, cautionary new title, is smallpox, or variola. But wasn't that eradicated? many might ask, particularly older Americans who remember painful vaccinations and the resultant scars. Officially, yes, nods Preston, who devotes the first half of the book to the valorous attempt by an army of volunteers to wipe out the virus (an attempt initially sparked by '60s icon Ram Dass and his Indian guru) via strategic vaccination; in 1977 the last case of naturally occurring smallpox was documented in Somalia, and today the variola virus exists officially in only two storage depots, in Russia and at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta (in the freezer of the title). To believe that variola is not held elsewhere, however, is nonsense, argues Preston, who delves into the possibility that several nations, including Iraq and Russia, have recently worked or are currently working with smallpox as a biological weapon. The author devotes much space to the anthrax attacks of last fall, mostly to demonstrate how easily a devastating assault with smallpox could occur here. He includes an interview with Steven Hatfill, who has received much press coverage for the FBI's investigation of him regarding those attacks; his description of meeting Hatfill, hallmarked by a quick character sketch ("He was a vital, engaging man, with a sharp mind and a sense of humor.... He was heavy-set but looked fit, and he had dark blue eyes") is emblematic of what makes this New Yorker regular's writing so gripping. Preston humanizes his science reportage by focusing on individuals-scientists, patients, physicians, government figures. That, and a flair for teasing out without overstatement the drama in his inherently compelling topics, plus a prose style that's simple and forceful, make this book as exciting as the best thrillers, yet scarier by far, for Preston's pages deal with clear, present and very real dangers.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover
T. S. Eliot's bleak vision of the future doesn't even begin to include the gloomy prognostications revealed in this book. That terrorists will either acquire or develop biological weapons capable of destroying all human life is not just a possibility, it's a probability, as Preston makes abundantly clear in this update on biological weapons development. This book is the ultimate wake-up call. Even if you want to sleep after reading this, you may not be able to.
Of the several biological weapons which have been under development in the past twenty-five years, smallpox is by far the most lethal and contagious, and irresponsible scientists have genetically engineered it in the past few years to make vaccination useless against it. Antidotes are unknown because humans are the only hosts for smallpox, and there is no way to run a test study of their efficacy. Preston points out, "It has taken the world twenty years to reach roughly fifty million cases of AIDS. [A single case of smallpox in an unprotected population] can reach that point in ten to twenty weeks."
A massive research and development program for weapons grade smallpox and plague, along with the MIRV missiles and warheads to deliver them abroad, continued, unknown and unmonitored, in the Soviet Union for twenty years after smallpox was officially eradicated in 1978. The whereabouts of the twenty tons of "hot," genetically altered smallpox are currently unknown. According to a defecting Russian scientist, even the Soviet researchers do not know where it went, but "they think it went to North Korea." Iran and Iraq are also believed to have "benefited" from this research and to have ongoing, active bioweapons research programs.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Smallpox non-fiction thriller! July 12 2004
Format:Hardcover
A fascinating treatise on smallpox, including its history and recent emergence as the virus of choice for bioterrorists.
Smallpox came into existance only as human population densities swelled. In the late 18th century, Edward Jenner made history by performing the first successful smallpox vaccination. In the centuries that followed, humanity waged war against smallpox, and it was ostensibly eradicated from nature in the late seventies. It seems that mankind was too enamored with smallpox to destroy it completely, however, and it lives on in freezers around the world.
"The Hot Zone", by the same author, made me paranoid about the ebola virus. Having finished this book, I know now that ebola is child's play compared to smallpox.
"Demon" is full of loads of details about the biomedical industry, including a survey of modern practices, tools, techniques, and prominent players. The book is all the more terrifying given its non-fiction status.
A must read for anybody interested in infectious diseases, smallpox, or bioweapons programs.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Chilling Reality May 8 2004
Format:Audio CD
If you think what you've heard on the news about smallpox is scary, you don't want to listen to this audiobook. Richard Preston provides a very detailed description of the varieties of smallpox & anthrax - its symptoms, disfigurements, and various paths to death-in highly graphic language. Preston argues that, to believe that smallbox is not held elsewhere is nonsense. A lot of time is spent on the the anthrax attacks of 2001. He believes that smallpox, which has killed more people than any other infectious disease, is the greatest biological threat facing humanity. Preston relates the history of smallpox from 1000 B.C. to the outbreaks in the 1970s. He goes into great detail about the World Health Organization's campaign to eradicate it and the lost opportunity to destroy it forever. His final chapter introduces the idea of genetically modified smallpox that might be resistant not only to vaccines, but also to acquired immunity. The author draws readers into his narrative by humanizing his facts; researchers, WHO workers, and smallpox victims relay parts of this vivid and alarming story. This isn't something that you want to listen to on a full stomach.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Quite Simply, The Scariest Book I've Ever Read April 17 2004
Format:Hardcover
When I was a kid, I read everything that Steven King had to offer, and I thought that "It" was terrifying. Mr. Preston's book convinced me that nothing in fiction can ever be as scary as smallpox or the possibility that someone is working in a laboratory trying to weaponize it so that it can be used against a civillian population.
Make no mistake, although smallpox officially exists only in two freezers (one in Russia, the other at the CDC in Atlanta), Mr. Preston details the very real probability that the virus exists in many labs ranging from Korea to the Middle East. I shudder to think that it would be possible to infect a volunteer with the virus who could then bring it to Chicago, Kansas City, Omaha, or any other city in the United States.
This book served as a wake-up call for me on a threat that is far greater than anything I could have imagined. It may be more frightening than the thought of a terrorist with a nuclear weapon. I hope that the CIA and FBI will do just about anything to make sure that this threat is not realized.
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Format:Mass Market Paperback
Not everyone will want to read this book. I choose to ignore most news shows about nuclear or bio-terrorism so that I can sleep better. Others seek to improve their understanding the threats we all face. For those who are selective about the information they choose to absorb, this is a well-researched, well-told history of the effort to fight smallpox and bioterrorism.
Preston tells the story of several individuals who have dedicated their lives in different ways to the fight against smallpox and bio-terrorism. Preston is very good at describing the incredibly dangerous missions that these people have chosen for themselves, and the diverse set of motives and beliefs that compel them.
One example is the hippie who interprets a Pakistani mystic's garbled chant as a command to join the world-wide smallpox irradication effort. Another is the gripping story of a single woman just out of college who thinks the researchers who work in the "blue suits" are insane, only to find herself in a Level 4 unit working with Ebola and smallpox a few weeks later.
The other aspect of the book that is as interesting in the way it is told, as it is frightening is the almost unlimited potential for bioterrorists to make even more virulent strains of these diseases. Today, everyone is aware of the threat of bioterrorism, but Preston succeeds in explaining just how dangerous the threat is.
Because the Fall 2001 anthrax attacks occured as the book was being written, it seems Preston felt obligated to weave these events into the book. As a result, the story is at times slightly disjointed, but overall, I think the anthrax angle added more than it detracted to the book.
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Most recent customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars The Demonâ�
This is the sort of book that you just cannot put down. I started reading it on a long car ride home from Portland and was hooked immediately. Read more
Published on July 17 2004 by Cedric
4.0 out of 5 stars A slight down-grade, but nonetheless incredible
The Demon in the Freezer is the third of Richard Preston's "Black Biology" books. It was his second non-fiction story involving bioterrorism and viruses. Read more
Published on July 12 2004 by Alex
4.0 out of 5 stars Informative and Interesting
This book jumps between the Anthrax events of 2001 and the history of Smallpox eradication. While enlightening, the two different topics caused some confusion. Read more
Published on April 15 2004 by Everest Books
4.0 out of 5 stars Written at a low level, but fine information
It seems that the vast majority of books written on this subject are at the fourth grade level. This book is slightly better, but still needs work. Read more
Published on April 10 2004
5.0 out of 5 stars Gripping Ideas
With the ideas and Mystery Surrounding 9/11 at bay, this book would seem boring. Yet with all the mystery of what the government has hidden from us over time and the scares in our... Read more
Published on March 24 2004
4.0 out of 5 stars Anthing you need to know about smallbox and more
Bioterrorism. Biowarfare. This book makes you want to crawl into a pressurized suit and stay there. Richard Preston opens eyes and spins heads in this excellent book. Read more
Published on Feb. 9 2004 by "blondigrl"
4.0 out of 5 stars Scary as hell
This book should scare the hell out of you. If everything had gone perfectly after the official eradication of smallpox in 1979, the last two stashes of the virus at the CDC and in... Read more
Published on Jan. 31 2004 by world class wreckin cru
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent book
This books is Richard Preston's second best, the first being The Hot Zone. It describes not only the threat of smallpox and history of smallpox in detail, but also the different... Read more
Published on Jan. 15 2004
4.0 out of 5 stars Sobering
This is the first of Preston's books that I have read. I found it to be informative and sobering. I look forward to reading Preston's other offerings. Read more
Published on Jan. 4 2004
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