Vivid recounting of past outbreaks of plague, coupled with ominous predictions of man-made ones that may lie ahead.
Science journalist Orent, who worked on the English version of Igor Domaradskij’s memoir Biowarrior (not reviewed), opens with a visit to Obolensk, site of the lab where Domaradskij claims to have worked on turning plague and other diseases into biological weapons. His former colleague Lev Melnikov tells the author that her job is to scare the American public, to make them see the danger posed by genetically altered plague germs. Pursuing that goal with vigor, Orent argues here that while there is no proof that a highly lethal, vaccine- and antibiotic-resistant plague weapon has ever been made, the technology may now exist to produce it. She reports on what scientists currently know about the different forms of plague and the ways it is spread across species and from person to person. To familiarize readers with its horrors, she focuses on three great pandemics: the Justinian Plague of the sixth century, the medieval Black Death, and the early-20th century’s Third Pandemic, primarily in India and China. While records of the Justinian Plague are comparatively scanty, contemporary accounts of the Black Death illustrate the panic it created and the devastation that it wrought across Europe. (Of special interest are Orent’s descriptions of public health measures taken by Italian city-states.) Not until the Third Pandemic did researchers begin to unravel the disease’s mysteries, identifying the plague bacillus and discovering the connection among rodents, fleas, and humans. Natural plague can now be controlled through careful monitoring, medical treatment, and quarantine, but weaponized, genetically engineered plague remains a possibility, she argues. If we are to believe her Russian scientists, the seed strains still exist, and so does the scientific knowledge to turn plague into a bioweapon that could turn up in the hands of terrorists.
Though hedged with qualifiers, Orent’s message is chilling, and her stories of previous epidemics make palpable the enormity of the threat.