The Demon in the Freezer

“The bard of biological weapons captures the drama of the front lines.”
–Richard Danzig, former secretary of the navy

The first major bioterror event in the United States — the anthrax attacks in October 2001–was a clarion call for scientists who work with “hot” agents to find ways of protecting civilian populations against biological weapons. In The Demon in the Freezer, his first nonfiction book since The Hot Zone, a #1 New York Times bestseller, Richard Preston takes us into the heart of USAMRIID, the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Maryland, once the headquarters of the U.S. biological weapons program and now the epicenter of national biodefense.

Peter Jahrling, the top scientist at USAMRIID, a wry virologist who cut his teeth on Ebola, one of the world’s most lethal emerging viruses, has ORCON security clearance that gives him access to top-secret information on bioweapons. His most urgent priority is to develop a drug that will take on smallpox – and win. Eradicated from the planet in 1979 in one of the great triumphs of modern science, the smallpox virus now resides, officially, in only two high-security freezers—one at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and in Siberia, at a Russian virology institute called Vector. But the demon in the freezer has been set loose. It is almost certain that illegal stocks are in the possession of hostile states, including Iraq and North Korea. Jahrling is haunted by the thought that biologists in secret labs are using the techniques of genetic engineering to create a new superpox virus – a smallpox that is resistant to all vaccines.

USAMRIID went into a state of Delta Alert on September 11th and activated its emergency response teams when the first anthrax letters were opened in New York and Washington, D.C. Preston reports, in unprecedented detail, on the government’s response to the attacks and takes us into the ongoing FBI investigation. His story is based on interviews with top-level FBI agents.

Jahrling is leading a team of scientists doing controversial experiments with live smallpox, reawakening the virus at the CDC. Preston dramatizes this work and the conflict it has provoked within the scientific community, and he explains, with cool and devastating precision, what may be at stake if his last bold experiment fails.

Advance Praise for The Demon in the Freezer

“Richard Preston has brought us another book that reads like a top-notch thriller. Would that it were fiction. As the movie unfolds in your mind, remember this: It can happen here.”
— Laurie Garrett, author of The Coming Plague

“The Demon in the Freezer is fascinating, frightening, and important. It reads like a thriller, but the demons are real. Richard Preston has a ‘black patent’ on this kind of reporting and storytelling. He is the only writer on the scene who can make the inside story of biological weapons so darkly entertaining. Read this book and pray that its heroes can lock the demon back in the freezer.”
— Jonathan Weiner, author of The Beak and the Finch

“It reads like a thriller, but the demons are real. Richard Preston has a ‘black patent’ on this kind of reporting and storytelling. He is the only writer on the scene who can make the inside story of biological weapons so darkly entertaining.”
–Jonathan Weiner

“This book will give you nightmares. … Richard Preston does for smallpox what he did for the deadly Ebola virus in his 1994 best seller, “The Hot Zone”: by jump-cutting among narrative strands, he turns a story about science and medicine into a theme-park ride of a thriller.”
— Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times



On the last day of December 1969, a man I will call Peter Los arrived at the at the airport in Düsseldorf, West Germany, on a flight from Pakistan. He had been ill with hepatitis in the Civil Hospital in Karachi, and had been discharged, but he wasn’t feeling well. He was broke and had been holed up in a seedy hotel in a Karachi slum. His brother and father met him at the airport — his father was a supervisor in a slaughterhouse near the small city of Meschede, in the mountains of North-Rhine Westphalia, in northern Germany.

Peter Los was twenty years old, a former apprentice electrician with no job, journeying in pursuit of dreams that receded before him. He was tall and good looking–thin now–with a square, chiseled face, and dark, restless, rather guarded eyes under dark eyelashes. He had short, curly hair, which was dark, and he wore faded jeans, and he was traveling with a backpack, in which he’d tucked brushes, pencils, paper, and a set of watercolor paints, and he carried a folding easel. Peter Los is alive today in Germany. The details of his person have been forgotten to the experts, but his case and its aftermath haunt them like the ruins of a fire.

Los had been living in a commune in the city of Bochum while he had studied to be an electrician, but members of the commune had split ideologically. Some favored a disciplined approach to communal living, while others, including Peter, favored the hippie ideals of the Sixties. In August, 1969–the month of the Woodstock music festival–eight members of the Bochum commune, including Peter, packed themselves into a Volkswagen bus and set off for Asia on an Orientreise. Thee were six men and two women on the bus, and they were apparently hoping to find a guru in the monasteries of the Himalayas, where they could meditate and seek a higher knowledge, and possibly also find good hashish. They drove the bus down through Yugoslavia to Istanbul, crossed Turkey, and they went through Iraq and Iran, camping out under the stars or staying in the cheapest places. They rattled across Afghanistan on the world’s worst roads, and the Volkswagen bus made it over the Kyhber Pass. They hung out in Pakistan, but things didn’t go as well as they had hoped, and they didn’t connect with a guru. The two women lost interest in the trip and went back to Germany, and toward December, three men in the group drove the Volkswagen into India and down the coast to Goa, to attend a hippie festival called the Christmas Paradise. Peter stayed behind in Karachi, and ended up languishing with hepatitis in the Civil Hospital.

Now that Peter was back in Germany, an eastbound train took him and his father and brother away from the Düsseldorf airport, and traveled through the industrial heart of northern Germany, past seas of warehouses and factories made of brown brick. It is unlikely that Peter would have had much to say to his father at this point, and he would have lit a cigarette and looked out the window. The train arrived at the Ruhr River, and it followed the course of the river into the fir-clad mountains of the Sauerland, winding upstream under skies the color of carbon steel, until it reached Meschede. Meschede is a cozy place, where people know one another. It nestles in a valley at the headwaters of the Ruhr, beside a lake. It had been snowing in Meschede, and the hills and mountains surrounding the city were cloaked in snowy firs. It was New Year’s Eve, and he was home with his family. He celebrated the new decade, and he caught up with old friends, and rested, recovering from his illness.

The weather was cloudy and dark, but in the second week of January the clouds broke away from the mountains, and clear weather came down from the north, bringing dry, cold air and blue skies. At the same time, influenza broke out in the town, and many people became sick with coughs and fevers. Around Friday, January 9th, Peter began to feel strange.

He was tired, achy, restless, and by the end of the day he was running a temperature. Then, on Saturday, his fever spiked upward, and he was very sick in the night, and on Sunday morning, his family called an ambulance, and it drove him to the largest hospital in town, the St. Walberga Krankenhaus. He brought with him his art supplies and his cigarettes in the ambulance.

Dr. Dieter Enste examined Peter. He was recovering from his hepatitis, but perhaps he had typhoid fever, which is contagious, and which he could have caught in the hospital in Pakistan. They placed him in the isolation ward, in a private room, Room 151, and they started him on tetracycline.

The St. Walberga Hospital was staffed by nuns from the Sisters of Mercy, who served as nurses. The hospital was spare, simple, neat, and spotlessly clean. The isolation ward took up the entire first floor of the south wing of the hospital, which was semi-detached building, three stories tall, covered with brown stucco, with a staircase that ran through the middle. The nuns told Los to keep his door closed and not to leave his room for any reason.

He settled in on that Sunday morning, and quickly began to feel better, and his fever almost went away. Even so, the nuns forbade him to leave the room, not even to use the bathroom, though it was directly across the hall. They made him use a bedpan, and they emptied it for him, and he washed himself at the sink in his room. The steam radiator under the window hissed and banged, and it made his room feel stuffy. He wanted a cigarette. He slid open one of the room’s windows just a crack, got out his cigarettes, and lit one. The nuns were not happy with that, and ordered him to keep his window closed.

That Sunday, Father Kunibert, a Benedictine priest, made rounds through the hospital, offering holy communion to the sick. He was an older man, not strong on his legs, and he worked his way down through the building, so that he wouldn’t have to climb stairs. Finally, on the first floor at the end of the corridor, he put his head in Room 151 and asked the patient if he wished to receive communion. The young man was not interested. The medical report informs us that he “refused communion” and that “the priest was advised that his services were not desired.”

When the nuns weren’t looking, Peter would get out of bed and slide up his window a crack, and cold air would pour in, filling the room with a brisk scent of the outdoors mixed with chirps of sparrows, and he would smoke another cigarette.

The tetracycline wasn’t working, and the doctors started him on chloramphenicol. He had a sense of creeping malaise, a feeling that things weren’t right, and the drugs weren’t working on his typhoid. He took out his colors and his brushes and began to paint. When he became tired of that, he took out a pencil and made sketches. There wasn’t much to see out his window–a nursing sister in a white habit, hurrying down a walkway, patches of snow, branches of bare beech trees crisscrossing a sky of cobalt blue.

Monday and Tuesday passed. Every now and then a nun would come in and collect his bedpan. His throat was red, and he had a cough, which was getting worse. The back of his throat developed a raw feeling, and he sketched restlessly. At night he may have suffered from dreadful, hallucinatory dreams. The inflamed area in his throat was no bigger than a postage stamp, but in a biological sense it was hotter than the surface of the sun. Particles of smallpox virus were streaming out of oozy spots in the back of his mouth, and were mixing with his saliva. When he spoke or coughed, microscopic infective droplets mixed with smallpox particles were being released, forming an invisible cloud that floated in the air around him. Viruses are the smallest forms of life. They are parasites that multiply inside the cells of their hosts, and they cannot multiply except anywhere else. A virus is not strictly alive, but it is certainly not dead. It is described as a life form. There was a cloud of amplified virus hanging in his room, and it was moving through the hospital. On Wednesday, January 14th, Peter’s face and forearms began to turn red.

The red areas spread into blotches across Peter Los’s face and arms, and within hours, the blotches broke out into seas of tiny pimples They were sharp feeling, not itchy, and by nightfall they covered his face, arms, hands, and feet. Pimples were rising out of the soles of his feet and on the palms of hands, and they were coming up in his scalp, and in his mouth, too. During the night, the pimples developed tiny, blistery heads, and the heads continued to grow larger. They were rising all over his body at the same speed, like a field of barley sprouting after rain. They were beginning to hurt dreadfully, and they were enlarging into boils. They had a waxy, hard look, and they seemed unripe. His fever soared abruptly and began to rage. The rubbing of pajamas on his skin felt like a roasting fire. He was acutely conscious and very, very scared. The doctors didn’t know what was wrong with him.

By dawn on Thursday, January 15th, his body had become a mass of blisters. They were everywhere, all over, even on his private parts, but they were clustered most thickly on his face and extremities. This is known as the centrifugal rash of smallpox. It looks as if some force at the center of the body is driving the rash out toward the face, hands, and feet. The inside of his mouth and ear canals and sinuses had pustulated, and the lining of the rectum may have pustulated, as it will do in severe cases. Yet his mind was clear. When he coughed or tried to move, it felt as if his skin was pulling off his body, that it would split or rupture. The blisters were hard and dry, and they didn’t leak. They were like ball bearings embedded in the skin, with a soft, velvety feel on the surface. Each blister had a dimple in the center. They were pressurized with an opalescent pus.

The blisters began to touch one another, and finally they merged into confluent sheets that covered his body, like a cobblestone street. The skin was torn away from its underlayers across much of his body. The blisters on his face combined into a bubbled mass filled with fluid, until the skin of his face essentially detached from its underlayers and became a bag surrounding the tissues of his head. His tongue, gums, and hard palate were knobbed with pustules, yet his mouth was dry, and he could barely swallow. The virus had stripped the skin off his body, both inside and out, and the pain would have seemed almost beyond the capacity of human nature to endure it.

Excerpted from The Demon in the Freezer by Richard Preston. Copyright 2002 by Richard Preston. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.