Preston guides us deftly on another scary excursion (Hot Zone, 1994) into the world of really bad viruses—this time smallpox, with a side helping of anthrax.
The author’s steady, ominous voice gives the world of smallpox a particular grimness: Epidemiologists consider it the worst human disease on record, having killed perhaps a billion people over the last 100 years. The scourge went to the brink of extinction, having been targeted for erasure from the natural world through a comprehensive eradication program (“No greater deed was ever done in medicine, and no better thing ever came from the human spirit,” declares Preston). Since the disease had last been seen in nature in 1979, during the Cold War, it was decided that samples of the various strains would be kept in both the US and in the USSR. After that, it wasn’t long before the black absurdity of an even greater menace was conjured up by its specter as a bio-weapon—manipulable and dreadful. Preston takes readers through the eradication program, describing in clipped detail smallpox’s effects. He outlines the potential of the virus as a biological weapon and explains why it is thought that Russia developed and deployed missiles outfitted with smallpox-laden warheads in the 1990s (he doesn’t conjecture what the US may have been doing, if anything, along such lines during the same period) and suggests that anyone who believes that smallpox samples are held only by Russia and the US is living in a fool’s paradise. Those doing research on smallpox—proposals to destroy the last known strains ran into bioethical conflicts—are the same as those detailed to handle the anthrax letters, and Preston takes up that latter subject before moving on to a discussion of super-lethal, vaccine-resistant, antiviral weapons.
Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide from microscopic infectious agents? Welcome to Mr. Preston’s frightening neighborhood.