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October 21, 2002

Hot Zone author Preston talks about smallpox

By Eric Rangus

While researching his newest book, The Demon in the Freezer: A True Story, Richard Preston traveled to Ft. Detrick, Md., headquarters of the United States Medical Research and Materiel Command.

While there, he held the arm of a 3-year-old child. That child (no one knows whether it was a boy or girl) had died of smallpox perhaps 50 years ago. From its fingertips to the shoulder, where it had been detached for research purposes, the arm was covered in the pustules that signify the deadly—but now eradicated—disease. The condition was so severe, Preston said, that the tiny hand had become one giant pustule.

“It was then when I saw what ordinary people experienced; your grandparents may have seen smallpox with their own eyes,” Preston told a full house at WHSCAB Auditorium Wednesday night during an hour-long speech discussing his latest book.

While the subject matter—the dangers of the smallpox virus being used as a weapon of mass destruction—is certainly serious and Preston’s descriptions sometimes graphic, the overall tone of the evening was hardly doom and gloom, and the speaker’s delivery was engaging rather than heavy.

“We had every right, reason and need to cause this virus to cease to exist on this planet,” Preston continued. About 20 years ago, there was a chance to destroy the world’s stockpiles of smallpox, the last naturally occurring case of which took place in 1977, but it was passed up. Now the United States, as well as the rest of the world, is dealing with concerns that smallpox could return—this time as a chemical weapon.

“Any nation that wants biological weapons will find PhD biologists willing to create them,” Preston said. He compared modern biological warfare to the proliferation of nuclear weapons among several countries in the 20th century. “To keep ourselves safe from the virus, we have to use it.”

It is that effort—to use the smallpox virus in a manner that results in a new vaccine—that Preston details in The Demon in the Freezer.

The book is a cautionary, nonfiction tale about the dangers posed by smallpox, which is held officially in just two places: a lab in Siberia and at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta. In the book, Preston interviews scientists who are working on a new vaccine as well as discusses the possibility that other entities, be they states or terrorist groups, possess stockpiles of virus for use as a weapon of mass destruction.

Preston, who has a PhD in English literature from Princeton, has written for The New Yorker since 1985. He is the author of 1994’s The Hot Zone, a No. 1 New York Times best seller, a recipient of the American Institute of Physics Award and the only non-doctor to ever receive the CDC’s Champion of Prevention award.

Having written about Ebola in The Hot Zone, as well as a bioterror-themed novel called The Cobra Event, Preston told the crowd that he had hoped to write about something else.

But the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 (he could see the smoke rising above Manhattan from his New Jersey neighborhood) affected him deeply.

“I ended up feeling unable to move forward as a writer,” he said. “I’d gotten a case of spiritual laryngitis. I didn’t know what to say.” That event, as well as the anthrax attacks of late 2001, resulted in his diving into a book about smallpox.

During his speech, Preston not only discussed the work and research that led up to The Demon in the Freezer’s publication, but he also spent significant time discussing his craft. Specifically the unique nature of interviewing scientists, who he described as “quiet heroes.”

“Scientists have uncomfortable reactions when described vividly,” Preston said. “Details are what make a piece of writing come alive. But scientists don’t understand when I ask what kind of car they drive.”

Preston’s appearance was sponsored by the Center for Public Health Preparedness and Research in the Rollins School of Public Health as part of its Triangle Lecture Series. The goal of the Triangle series is to bring together members of the public health, health care and academic communities who are engaged in preparedness for infectious diseases and other public health threats.