The Demon in the Freezer by Richard Preston

TLDR: read this book with caution, as it’s a fascinating story and simultaneously rife with content later found to be in dispute.

The Demon in the Freezer by Richard Preston is an easy book to read and a hard book to resolve.

If what you’re looking for is a book that gives you a history of smallpox, how we eradicated it, and what’s happened since, this is a great primer of the science that can’t be taken at face value for the historical accuracy.

Preston takes us through two stories: the “Amerithrax” anthrax attacks against the United States in 2001, and the ongoing story of the eradication and probable weaponization of smallpox beginning in the 1960s. There are many obvious challenges to telling these two stories: first, that when the book was written in 2002, the Amerithrax case was still open, second, that much of the information involved in the stories is classified, and third, that writing about science such the the layman can understand viruses is a hell of a challenge.

The third, Preston nails. The book has view diagrams, but the ones provided are profoundly effective. His use of language to paint setting and explore human characters is equally effective discussing the shape and behavior of anthrax and smallpox.

The first, Preston couldn’t have ended effectively. The book was published in 2002, but the case was not closed until 2009 (according to Wikipedia’s article on the subject and even then, Wikipedia notes, some folks question whether the true perpetrator was found. Some of the content of the book itself has been refuted or discovered to be wrong since its publication, which is also one of the risks of writing about current history. Preston states, what was believed to be known at the time, that the anthrax in the attacks had been weaponized. Since then, that believe has been overturned, and the anthrax is now believed to be “just” a mix of anthrax purified to different extents. Stephen Hatfill, who at the time of the writing was a person of interest in the case, has been fully exonerated. Obviously, it’s extremely difficult to resolve an open investigation in such a way that the book is satisfying.

Finally, there’s the question of whether Preston himself was able to get the full story, for which the obvious answer is “of course not”. Multiple American and world government agencies, scientists, and organizations were all involved not only in the anthrax case but also in the handling of smallpox — the actual story that the book puts forward.

Preston interviews and quotes many people from around the world in his storytelling, which results in a rich and fascinating look at killer poxviruses, how they work, and how grateful we should be that they are contained. He goes into stark but not sensationalist detail about what smallpox does to the human body, its various forms, how the virus looks and behaves, and how the Eradication Team defeated it. He outlines challenges in “bringing it back to life” so that an antiviral could be created. (Wikipedia’s smallpox articlereports that in 2018 an antiviral treatment was approved by the FDA, indicating that the US Government’s goals may have been at least partially reached.)

Preston also covered much of the history of the virus in detail, including its use as biological warfare during the French and Indian War. He described extensive evidence of Russian biological weaponry as well as interviews with Russian defectors who produced weaponized smallpox during the late 20th century. He speculates and infers heavily that the Russian supplies of smallpox could easily be in the hands of American enemies such as Iraq and Iran, as well as any of a number of other “bad actors”. He also goes into details of a research project in Australia that turned mousepox into a “superbug” and how a similar genetic experiment on smallpox could make it even more deadly than it already is. In some cases, the people involved in biological warfare are painted in a negative light (as well they should be) accused of prevarication and avoidance of WHO inspectors.

However, Americans throughout the book are never cast in this same light. The book states that all biological warfare research in the US was ended prior to the eradication of smallpox in the late 1970s and that while Preston makes it clear he believes the Russians did engineer smallpox as a weapon, he never even suggests that US has considered it.

As a close friend said to me, “If the Russians were doing it, you can bet we were doing it, and we probably both still are.”

I don’t expect an author working closely with US government sources to produce such a book would write anything that would jeopardize his sources without good reason, and in the early 2000s doing so in the US (in the height of significant nationalism resulting from the 9/11 attacks) would have gone over like a lead balloon anyway. “Know your audience” is a key point in publication. But I caution other readers to remember these motives in the writing. The Amerithrax attack was eventually (at least in the FBI’s view) traced back to an American scientist who had access to anthrax and lab equipment and knowledge. There is no reason to believe that American scientists have never created smallpox bioweapons, nor a reason to believe that they could not still, outside of the CDC’s official position that smallpox is only available in a firmly secured freezer in an undisclosed location.

It’s 2019, and smallpox remains eradicated from nature. Measles is on the rise thanks to a different kind of bioterrorism — deliberate misinformation about vaccines. White nationalism is on the rise and the vast majority of terror attacks on US soil since 2001 have been by radical white extremists. ICE and the DHS are imprisoning minority immigrants and asylum seekers in near-concentration-camp conditions. It seems objectively likely based on the contents of Preston’s book that the right American scientists with the right twisted motives in the right place and the right time could find himself in possession of some smallpox — domestic or purchased internationally — and free the demon from the freezer. It could, I dare to say, even be our own government experimenting on the asylum seekers we have always welcomed.

One hopes that when the next pandemic occurs, whether it’s in the US or somewhere else, we are able to use the knowledge from scientists such as D. A. Henderson and Peter Jahrling, to rapidly contain and re-eradicate the threat.