Bugs Without Borders

The Reagan administration’s decisions to build the Trident submarine and the MX missile and to launch the Strategic Defense Initiative were based on considerations of “domestic politics, history and mythology” as much as they were on “reality—or the best intelligence estimates about it,” writes Frances FitzGerald in Way Out There in the Blue, her account of Reagan’s defense program. Today, Washington is deeply preoccupied with biological and chemical weapons, and the Bush administration is preparing to spend heavily on biological defense research. America’s leaders fear that the rogue states and terrorist groups that are now our adversaries would be more likely to use such weapons, because they are cheaper and easier to procure and deploy than nuclear warheads. In The Demon in the Freezer, Richard Preston describes how US biodefense research can be seen as preparation for a new arms race, but he neglects to address the moral implications of this for the laboratories, the people who work in them, or for the American public in general. Nor is Preston as enlightening as Frances FitzGerald might be about whose interests this buildup actually serves.

In past centuries, epidemics of smallpox, plague, cholera, and other diseases killed millions of people in medieval market towns, colonial cities, and Victorian slums. It is unlikely that the germs that caused these diseases would kill as many people in industrialized nations such as the US, with modern health care, good nutrition, and adequate water and sanitation, but this is not an experiment we would want to carry out. Few twenty-first-century Americans know what an epidemic of smallpox or plague is like, but these diseases so ravaged our ancestors that we may carry the fear of them somewhere in our genes.

The Demon in the Freezer opens with a description of the early stages of the investigation into the anthrax attacks that killed five people in the fall of 2001. In October and November of that year, five envelopes containing highly purified, “weapons grade” anthrax arrived by mail at the headquarters of various newspapers and television news broadcasters as well as at the Washington offices of two liberal Democratic senators, Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Patrick Leahy of Vermont. The envelopes contained letters that said “DEATH TO AMERICA/DEATH TO ISRAEL/ALLAH IS GREAT” and then, curiously, most warned the recipients to take antibiotics right away.

Preston describes the urgency and confusion with which government scientists first responded to the anthrax crisis. He also describes the horror that overcame some of the researchers when they imagined what would have happened if those letters had contained smallpox, which, unlike anthrax, can spread from person to person. To show how infectious smallpox can be, the scene in Demon shifts to a small hospital in the Sauerland region of Germany in 1970, where a young tourist, just returned from Pakistan, lies in quarantine, suffering from smallpox. One day his symptoms temporarily abate and, against the orders of the nurses, he opens the window …

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