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The Hot Zone

28 Jul 2012

Definitely worth a read.

Preston’s treatment of an incident in the 80s in which monkeys, infected with ebola, manage to get into the US (but remain in quarantine). It reads like a very long article in the New Yorker, very well researched, and very entertainingly educational.

There’s tons to learn here: basic filovirus epidemiology, how ridiculous the US government is about who is in charge of a serious outbreak, how difficult it is to track the initial source of a new human virus, and how rapidly new human viruses are mutating when they leap from other species to humans, and thus how difficult it is to even determine which virus one is dealing with. In this case, the check for ebola was done with an electron microscope, which means that we basically got lucky that filoviruses are so unique, that there was an electron microscope operator that bothered, and that the outbreak happened a few miles away from a lab that could do those tests. Good luck finding a more traditional virus in Topeka.

There’s only two downsides to the book. The first is that Preston can get a little wordy and perhaps a bit too creative in some of the descriptions he gives of the characters and their lives. They go on for a bit and I can’t believe they were all accurate. The second is that it turned out the monkeys were infected with a strain that was not dangerous to humans. So the whole book was kind of anticlimactic, but there’s nothing to be done about the truth. Ah well.

It doesn’t take away from the fun factor and educational value of the book. Worth picking up.