Curtis Butturff's Reviews > The Demon in the Freezer

The Demon in the Freezer by Richard   Preston
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's review
Oct 10, 10

bookshelves: non-fiction, history
Recommended for: Anyone especially healthcare workers.
Read on October 09, 2010, read count: 1

Firstly if you are perusing the reviews about this book on various sites and how scary it is keep in mind it's publication date is as of this writing nearly 10 years ago. This does not change the basic facts and premise it in facts underscores the growing urgency of the issue day by day.

I think in some respects this guy reminds of Bob Woodward if Bob wrote about bio-terrorism and emergent viruses that essentially threaten to destroy the world. This book details years of interviews and research into U.S. preparedness and awareness of the threat of biological terrorism. No one named deep throat but there are unnamed but presumably credible sources used.

Like Woodward this a work written by an investigative journalist with a talent for spinning a yarn which serves the purpose of taking a very big and significant element of recent history and making it easier for the average person to get their arms around.

That said for the sake of brevity and most likely no great desire to tackle some of the larger political questions his work raises he does steer clear of that (understandably). I however hold some degrees and my field of interest is in modern American history and political philosophy so I'll throw out some reasons why this is compelling even beyond the obvious national security issues.

For one there is the revelation of the size and scope of the suggested Russian bioweapon program. It's generally taken for a truism that Reagan's military policy broke the Soviet Union but I think this is a pretty clear indication that not all facets of the story are out. I tend to admire Reagan in some respects I confess but I think his legacy will not be fully known till more comes out of this. Bioweapons are cheap to make compared to space based defense programs against missiles and ironically Star Wars may have worked to inspire the Russians to make a weapon system so utterly destructive that it would have rendered the Reagan era buildup inconsequential.

Weaponized Smallpox, plague, and so forth is not a tactical system it is a thing that threatens the end of humanity. It does not matter if you shoot down a bio warhead if it still releases the agent into the atmosphere and finds even a few victims. Especially in the case of Variola. 200 particles are roughly the width of a human hair but only 3-4 of them are need to infect you with this virus. Having become infected you have a couple weeks to run around infecting others on trains, planes, automobiles, you name it. Then the really scary part sets in which is it's rate of amplification.

Basically lets say on day 1 one person is infected in say Minnesota with a population of 5 million. If you have an amplification factor of 1 that one person would infect 1 person that day. Day 2, 2 people infect 2 more and so until on day 14 you have 8192. With Variola it would be around the time people began to show symptoms.

I would suspect that rate of infection would worry a lot of people but that is not what is thought to be the actual amplification rate of the virus. That probably depends on the environment and other factors but in 1972 in Germany in an industrialized Western country there was an outbreak of naturally occurring variola that had an amplification factor of 17. If it had not been stopped using vaccines and containment by day 4 a 17 could have gone as high as 6,975,757,441. This in a normal hospital. Now of course I would argue had patient zero been somewhere else with fewer people the amplification rate would have been different. There may be a debate among scientist as to what it's true virulence is but in practical terms it's probably academic.

The viral agent that is the number one threat to humanity depends upon how many people are crowded together for determining it's proper amplification.

Take a small town in Wyoming, probably 10 or even much much lower. Take the two dozen megacities that are expected to form over the coming 20 years and 17 may seem like wishful thinking. It is thought that the megacities will all have roughly the population of California in a single city.

To thrive Smallpox is thought to require roughly 200,000 people living withing two weeks travel of each other. Give that some thought with the rise of cities with over 20 million in one spot and only a few hours apart.

Now back to the political realities we face. I actually would suspect that the Soviets were essentially bluffing and laying the seeds of doubt in the minds of Western intelligence agencies as was their client Saddam Hussein. That the aforementioned did in fact have the capacity to genetically engineer a virus? No doubts they did and they still do as does any country who buys the instruction manual on how to do it for a few thousands dollars from publisher Wiley & Sons. If fact it was done in Australia only to the rodent version, mousepox. The thing about that is that unless they were vary recently immunized the genetically modified virus was 100% lethal. Even in mice who had themselves been genetically modified to be resistant and then immunized on top of it.

Even worse perhaps is if you have been immunized but it was a few years ago and a human version is developed there may not be a way to counter it period.

This book is not just about Smallpox but as the number one most deadly disease of man it is the proverbial 800 lb gorilla. It is widely believed that weaponized version of Plague are out there and that weaponized anthrax has been used in the well publicized attacks following 911. Of course that is even cheaper to make and can be done in ones garage or whatever but a supply of Cipro is recommended.

Smallpox at present is almost a forgotten thing as naturally occurring cases in the wild were eradicated in the late 70s but as the title of the book suggests it is still around. Basically a lot of the leading virologists seem to be very pessimistic and to believe with 100% certainty that it will be used as a weapon again sometime this century.

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