DOASKDOTELL BOOK REVIEW of Judith Miller’s Germs; Preston’s Hot Zone; Garrett’s Coming Plague


Author (or Editor):  Miller, Judith; Englelberg, Stephen; Broad, William

Title: Germs: Biological Weapons and America’s Secret War

Fiction? Anthology?  

Publisher: Simon & Schuster


ISBN:  0-684-87158-0

Series Name:

Physical description: hardbound, 382 pages, with index

Relevance to doaskdotell:  terrorism

Review:  As a sickly boy, I thought of “germs” as a bad word. “Birds don’t get sick from germs,” my father said once (though not true). In graduate school at Kansas University, we even called one of the students, “The Germ.”

Judith Miller is the New York Times reporter who apparently received an anthrax-laced letter in October, 2001 during the anthrax attacks, still unsolved as of this writing (1/2001). I would assume that the authors will write an appendix and that the publisher will provide a reprint once there is sufficient information about the 2001 attacks, as this book appeared just before Sept. 11.

The amount of detail in this book is awesome. The authors start with the one previous domestic biological attack of salad bar salmonella by the Rajneeshees cult in Oregon in 1984, which could have been fatal for hundreds had a slightly varied bacterium been used. They then trace the enormous concern our government has had over the possibility of biological warfare ever since the 1950s.  The details of a number of major terrorist and military incidents over the years are covered. For example, the concern over whether Saddam Hussein would use biological weapons either against American troops in Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1990/1991 (by the way, we often forget that Iraq’s attack on Kuwait had started when Kuwait called in debts) or in the scud attacks against Israel and Saudi Arabia. The bluff from the Bush administration, that Baghdad just might get nuked, is covered (keeping Israel controlled was no simple matter). The possibility of horrific casualties from anthrax, botulism and other agents is covered, as was a concern of inspectors throughout the 1990s (and Hussein has interfered with many of the inspections). And the possibility of Soviet biological attacks, as well as leakage from dissident scientists after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union is covered: There was the anthrax “accident” at Sverdlovsk in 1978, and a plant at Stepnogorsk, Kazakhstan, capable of producing anthrax so finely milled that in theory it could wipe out a whole city if dispersed in a cloud.  The island in the Aral; Sea with waste was enormouslyly contaminated.

Despite all of this, authorities had to learn a great deal about anthrax once an outbreak occurred in 2001. The behavior of the disease seems much more dependent on the immune system of the person infected, much more variable in incubation period, and probably dependent upon efficient dispersal.

The authors present some speculative scenarios, such as the use of genetic engineering to defeat vaccines or add autoimmune disease to a viral pathology.

They discuss the work of writer Richard Preston, famous for his 1994 non-fiction account of the Ebola and Marburg viruses, The Hot Zone. The scariest part of this book might not have been horrific clinical case histories (these disease liquefy body tissues, and if the patient survives he or she is disfigured as with smallpox) but the possibility that the Reston variation might be airborne.  Then Preston would write and publish his novel, The Cobra Event Ballantine Books; ISBN: 0345409973 ;1998, in which terrorists design a “brainpox” that seems to belong in Stephen King’s The Stand.  The government actually tried to discourage publication of this novel, because what he proposed really is theoretically possible. Well, we’ve had the medical thrillers of Robin Cook.

Omitted is discussion of :Laurie Garrett’s monumental treatment The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance Penguin USA (Paper); ISBN: 0140250913, 1995.

Another source that I like from the AIDS epidemic is Robert Gallo’s Virus Hunting (1989) from New Republic. At one point in that book the speculation that HIV or a similar virus could naturally mutate into a casually contagious form is addressed.

So we have a situation familiar to AIDS activists in the 1980s, something with horrifying potential, but like the l’Hopital indeterminate derivative ratio, ultimately unpredictable outcome. As Garrett and Preston argue, we have hardly conquered infectious disease; changes in demographics and social behaviors can amplify previously undiscovered diseases. One could speculate on the possibilities: maybe the next disease incubates in people with poor extremity cirulation and spreads to others. The behavior of infectious diseases delivered by terrorists is really unpredictable. Many may be much harder to deliver effectively than supposed (even given the subway scenarios proposed by Ted Koppel on ABC “Nightline” Oct 5). But the ongoing possibility exists, as Chrales Krauthammer points out, that one biological attack (even with re-engineered smallpox) could destroy our society.

But biological warfare has been used before.  Only a cocky attitude towards experiments with self-inoculation saved George Washington’s armies from the British, and the British had already used smallpox in the French and Indian Wars (something overlooked in those movies with Daniel Day Lewis). And so with natural epidemics. The legend of the Passover might be related to infectious disease.  The Spanish flu might have become important in World War I.

Richard Preston, The Hot Zone (1994, Knopf, ISBN 0385479565) was a notorious non-fiction account of the outbreaks of Marburg Virus and then Ebola, as well as a chilling account of Ebola Reston in Virginia in 1989 among primates, where it is rumored that it may have been airborne. Preston’s descriptions of the Marburg victim are particularly graphic, with the bleeding out and vomiting onto health care attendants. I bought this at a book fair at work in 1994.  

Laurie Garrett, Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance (1994, Penguin, ISBN 0140250913) gives graphic accounts of Lassa fever, Marburg, Ebola (with a particularly detailed account of a man who recovered, but lost all of his body hair permanently in the process), and Hanna virus in the southwest—and, of course, HIV. Her thesis is that man’s encroachment onto nature brings deadly epidemics out of the woodwork. Garrett has been a vocal proponent of alarm over H5N1, avian influenza.


Related reviews” Holy War, Inc by Peter Bergen, The Next War by Caspar Weinberger; film: Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America   Daniel Kalla’s Pandemic


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