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The Demon in the Freezer by Richard Preston


Rating: (Recommended)


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Dark Biology

Before you line up for your smallpox vaccine, read Robert Preston’s new book, The Demon in the Freezer. Preston tells a story of the perils of modern dark biology, with special emphasis on smallpox, including the scientists who eradicated the disease worldwide, the decision to keep samples of the disease on ice, and the scientists who are modifying the disease today into strains that the current vaccine won’t immunize us from. Here’s a sample (p. 93):

“In 1991, the WHO had two hundred million doses of frozen smallpox vaccine in storage in the Gare Frigorifique in downtown Geneva. This was the world's primary stockpile of smallpox vaccine. The vaccine stockpile was costing the WHO twenty-five thousand dollars a year in storage costs, largely for the electricity to run the freezers. In 1991, an advisory panel of experts known as the Ad Hoc Committee on Orthopoxvirus Infections recommended that 99.75 percent of the vaccine stockpile be destroyed, in part to save on electricity costs. Since the disease had been eradicated, there was no need for the vaccine. The vaccine was taken out of the freezers, sterilized in an oven, and thrown into Dumpsters. This move saved the WHO less than twenty-five thousand dollars a year, and left it with a total of five hundred thousand doses of smallpox vaccine. That is less than one dose of the vaccine for every twelve thousand people on earth. The WHO has no plans to increase its stockpile now, since replacing the lost quantity would cost a half-billion dollars, and it doesn't have the money.

According to several independent sources. Lev Sandakhchiev was in charge of a research group at Vector in 1990 that devised a more efficient way to mass-produce warhead-grade smallpox in industrial scale pharmaceutical tanks. In 1994—three years after the British and American bioweapons inspectors toured Vector and were told by Sandakhchiev that there was no smallpox there—his people built a prototype smallpox bioreactor and allegedly tested it with variola major. The reactor is a three-hundred-gallon tank that looks something like a hotwater heater with a maze of pipes around it. It sits on four stubby legs inside a Level 4 hot zone in the middle of Corpus 6, on the third floor of the building. The reactor was filled with plastic beads on which live kidney cells from African green monkeys were growing. Vector scientists would pump the reactor full of cell-nutrient fluid and a little bit of smallpox. The reactor ran at the temperature of blood. In a few days, variola would spread through the kidneys cells, and the bioreactor would become extremely hot with amplified variola, whereupon the liquid inside the reactor could be drawn off in pipes and frozen. In biological terms, the liquid was hot enough to have global implications.”


After reading Preston’s book, I decided to skip the shot, since I was persuaded by one of his theses: smallbox as a weapon is more likely to be a modified version, not the disease for which we have a vaccine. The ability of biologists to modify the disease makes any pretension of safety through inoculation somewhat ludricuous. If you want more than smallpox from a scary non-fiction book, there’s plenty of information about anthrax to sate your appetitie when you read The Demon in the Freezer.

Steve Hopkins, December 23, 2002


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The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the January 2003 issue of Executive Times


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