book reviews

Anthrax books
Reviewed by: T.J. Nelson

The Investigation of a Deadly Outbreak
J. Guillemin
University of California Press 1999, 321 pp

T his is an interesting but very disappointing book. It is not a description of anthrax bacteria or a treatise on the disease as it might appear from the cover but describes the investigation by the author along with several others including a biologist, pathologist, and an interpreter, of the April 1979 Sverdlovsk, USSR anthrax outbreak. This is roughly the same group that investigated and debunked the 'yellow rain' incident in which the Soviet Union was accused - unfairly, it turned out - of dropping mycotoxins on the Hmong refugees in Laos.

One annoyance in the book is a continued inappropriate use of the present tense, resulting in sentences like "In early September 1998, I fly to England to attend the Third International Workshop on Anthrax...." This style of writing seems to have originated in American culture with newsreel films as an affectation to create artificial excitement by inaccurately portraying past events as if they are occurring in the present. However, in my opinion such abuse of the English language, rather than adding excitement, merely subverts any sense of historical accuracy. A sentence taken out of context from one of these newsreels, or from this book, could easily be misunderstood by someone unfamiliar with the subject. For example, one recent TV program (which is being broadcast as I write this) used the sentence, "For the past 8 years, Hoffman has been studying the properties of ergot, a fungus that grows on rye." - referring to a study done in 1943. It may be too much to expect TV producers to use the English language properly, but it is a disappointment to see this trend make its way into books.

Although the author reminds us on several occasions that she is a female sociologist, there is surprisingly little dogmatic feminist rhetoric or politically correct polemic in the book. Instead, the author comes across as a decent, humanistic layman, who is capable of withholding judgment until the facts are available, but who also adopts an emotional, intuitive approach toward her subject. This makes the book as much about the author's impressions and feelings as about the incident itself. It is full of concrete details about the author's visit to Sverdlovsk, such as the exploding light bulbs in her hotel room and the problems with her shoes, as well as the author's emotional responses to her interviews with relatives of the victims. The author also expresses this humanistic concern toward both the relatives and the victims of the epidemic, whose names are included in an appendix.

However, because the author has no training in science or medicine, the medical findings of the team reported here are hopelessly garbled. The author does not appear to believe the conclusions of the UTMB pathologist on the team. She is also not competent to present or evaluate any of the medical or pathological data, and does not try to do so. However, the absence of these data is a significant failing since the group's conclusion rests entirely on the differential diagnosis of inhalational vs. intestinal anthrax. According to the book, all of the data accumulated by the team during their first trip was inconclusive. It was only with the fortuitous subsequent arrival of epidemiologic data from their Russian sources that they were finally able to point unequivocally to an airborne release of spores from Compound 19, the Soviet bioweapons facility, as the cause, which the Russian government had already admitted. Some of these epidemiological results are presented in the book. However, there is no medical or pathological data, or any scientific information on the nature of the disease itself. The book would have been greatly improved if the author had cooperated with other members of the team, particularly the pathologist, and written a more comprehensive and credible report rather than a work for the popular press as this appears to be.

Ultimately, as a sociologist, the author also cannot resist waxing moralistic about bioweapons and the responsibilities of scientists, such as those who created the A-bomb. I have often wondered what the reaction of Americans would have been if, as is often suggested, the Manhattan project scientists had refused to finish the bomb. Japan would most likely have become divided into a communist North and capitalist South Japan. Their country and culture would have been crushed into oblivion by the Allied invasion. Millions of additional Japanese and as many as a million additional Americans would have died. In all likelihood, the American public would have blamed the scientists for this and branded them as traitors. For those asked by their country to create an atomic bomb, it was a no-win situation. It is too easy for a sociologist 55 years later to moralize, especially if the historical context in which the weapons were created is conveniently ignored.

Despite these failings, the book contrasts favorably with Virus X , which is little more than mindless scaremongering about Ebola and AIDS. This book concentrates almost entirely on the personalities and, for some reason, hair color, of the protagonists, and makes no attempt to conceal the author's personal prejudices and pre-formed opinions. In fairness, however, I found it impossible to read more than the first few pages of the poorly-written Virus X.

Although there are some footnotes in Anthrax, many of these refer to literary works or document banal social phenomena like the fact that visitors to a strange location have trouble recognizing their surroundings. As a story of the author's personal discovery of science and her attempt to understand and humanize the Sverdlovsk incident, the book is well-written and interesting; but as a scientific or historical document of a very important historical event or as a source of information on the disease, it is a disappointment. A much better description of the epidemiology and pathology of anthrax in general can be found in the WHO anthrax report, at the FAS website.

May 20, 2001

Ken Alibek with S. Handelman, 319 pp, Random House, 1999

A widespread belief in America is that biological weapons, besides being cruel, are impractical since they would be as likely to harm the attacker as their adversary. It is held that their inherent long-term instability, the hazardous nature of their production, and the lengthy time interval between infection and incapacitation of the enemy would make them about as useful at stopping an enemy on the battlefield as, say, banana peels and giant man-eating plants.

Other countries, and terrorist organizations, do not necessarily share this belief. For instance, Botulinum toxin, a natural molecule produced by the anaerobic bacterium Clostridium botulinum, was the first weapon used by the Aum Shinrikyo terrorists in Japan. Botulinum toxin is the most poisonous substance known: as little as 10 ng can be fatal to a 150 lb person.

In 1942 the German Panzer Corps attacking Stalingrad was suddenly decimated by a mysterious tularemia outbreak. Later, between 1982 and 1984, during the USSR-Afghanistan war, mysterious outbreaks of glanders, a lethal horse disease caused by Malleomyces mallei bacteria, occurred in Afghanistan.

The reason for these outbreaks is no longer a mystery. Ken Alibek, the Deputy Director of Biopreparat, the USSR's largest biological weapons facility, who (according to this account) tried to destroy his own research records on bioweapons and then defected to the U.S. in 1992, describes his brief investigation into the Stalingrad incident, and concludes that it could not have been a natural outbreak. He also recounts second-hand information from a member of the Fifteenth Directorate (part of the USSR's Ministry of Defense) that the Afghanistan incident was also man-made.

His book relates the story of his experiences at Biopreparat and describes the Soviet bioweapons facilities at Zagorsk, where smallpox, Q fever, and Venezuelan equine encephalitis were cultivated; Kirov, where viruses like Marburg, Ebola, and tularemia were produced; Vozrozhdeniya, their testing area; and the infamous anthrax facility at Sverdlovsk, where a 'biological Chernobyl' occurred.

In 1979, the anthrax drying plant at Sverdlovsk accidentally released a cloud of anthrax spores that killed as many as 100 people with the pulmonary form of anthrax. The book also recounts other, smaller accidents that were not reported by the news media.

The author also repeats the myth about British or Americans (depending on which version of the myth one hears) in colonial America distributing smallpox-infected blankets among the American Indians in order to massacre them. This story first appeared at the beginning of the political correctness movement, as an example of White males supposedly oppressing other ethnic groups. However, there are too many inconsistencies in this story for it to be credible. Viruses were not discovered until 1898. In the 17th and 18th centuries, it was believed that diseases were spread by "bad air", or maybe by acts of God against sinners. In view of this, it is unclear why the colonists would think that a blanket would be an efficient way to spread the disease. Also, if the colonists were in possession of smallpox-covered blankets, why wouldn't the colonists get wiped out from smallpox as well? This story, which becomes more elaborate as time goes on, has the aura of a disinformation campaign.

Indeed, the original Trent diary on which this rumor is based says absolutely nothing about giving Indians smallpox. On the contrary, Trent wrote:

... [the Indians] returned and said they would hold fast of the Chain of friendship. Out of our regard to them we gave them two Blankets and an Handkerchief out of the Small Pox Hospital. I hope it will have the desired effect.

Interpreting this as evidence of germ warfare seems to be a strained interpretation at best. On the contrary, given the widespread existence of smallpox hospitals in that time, it is far more reasonable to interpret it as a gesture of friendship, misguided to be sure in retrospect with what we know today.

Speaking of disinformation, the KGB also played a large role in distributing disinformation about bioweapons. According to The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive by historian Christopher Andrew and the defector Vasili Mitrokhin, the bizarre rumor that AIDS was created by American biological weapons scientists, was in fact invented by the KGB. The Soviets were convinced that the USA was creating biological weapons, and, according to documents smuggled out of Russia by Mitrokhin, invented this rumor to create racial disharmony in the U.S. and antipathy among our allies. This pathological suspiciousness also fueled the Soviet biological weapons program.

The author's most sensational claim, however, is that Russia is now working on a genetically-altered virus combining elements of smallpox and Ebola. Although it seems highly improbable that such a virus is really possible, there is little doubt that Russia could still have a sizeable stockpile of smallpox virus. They could well have tried to mutate the virus to improve its resistance against protective countermeasures. The fact that people are no longer vaccinated against smallpox means that this is a true "doomsday" weapon.

This is a short book, written in a breezy, first-person journalistic style. Unlike the historical and well-documented Mitrokin Archive, none of the claims in the book are documented with any evidence. Thus, the extent to which the claims in the book are true, anti-Soviet disinformation, or even fiction cannot be evaluated. However, there are no major scientific gaffes in the book. The author seems knowledgeable enough about viruses to be authentic and the bulk of his claims are plausible.

However, he seems to have a high degree of credulousness concerning unsubstantiated rumors, such as the 'blanket' rumor mentioned above or the smallpox-Ebola rumor in his book. Perhaps this results from his many years of working in a Communist dictatorship, where truth was handed down by decree; it might also explain how he could have been persuaded to create biological weapons despite his own misgivings.

One suspects, in fact, that the book is actually incomplete. It is easy to imagine many other ways in which people obsessed with a quest for national or ideological supremacy, or merely misguided patriotism, could re-engineer infectious agents to create incurable, deadly plagues. The most frightening thing about this book is not that a foreign government would stockpile viruses, but how easy this would be for terrorists with no scientific knowledge, whose only goal is to spread death.

Jan 15, 2001