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Hot Zone, The – Review

by: Preston, Richard

Publisher: Anchor Books, Doubleday

Copyright: 1994

Type: Paperback

reviewed by: Lynard Barnes 9/5/1995

Summary: Must Read.

Republished from Crushies Book Reviews – Volume II Issue No. 9 – Sept 1995 – Copyright 1995.

The movie “OUTBREAK” is loosely–and I mean loosely as in Hostess Twinkies being a health food–based on Richard Preston’s book, THE HOT ZONE. Dustin Hoffman plays a crusading medical researcher set on stopping an outbreak of the fictional Motoba virus. Rene Russo plays his estranged wife, also a medical researcher working for the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, who becomes infected with the virus. Morgan Freeman is commander of the United States Army Medical Research Institute Of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) unit where Hoffman works. Donald Sutherland, appropriately I suppose, plays the boss of everything. There are only three good qualities in this movie: the breathtaking cinema photography, watching Rene Russo, and seeing Morgan Freeman and Donald Sutherland in the same scenes. The worst thing in this movie is the veiled reference to nature exacting revenge on humankind by releasing a deadly virus because we cut-down trees. (Oh mi gosh!, humankind being punished again!! already!!)

OUTBREAK follows a predictable scenario. A virulent virus is discovered in Africa in 1967 among some mercenary soldiers. The U. S. Army obtains a sample of the virus and contains the spread of the virus by killing-off the entire mercenary force along with the medical personnel taking care of them. Some thirty years later, the virus re-appears and spreads to some twenty-six hundred people in a small town in California. The antiviral drug developed by the Army in 1967 will not work on the new strain. So, old meannie, Donald Sutherland wants to do the air bomb thing again and wipe the town off the face of the earth. If you’ve watched any made for TV-movie, you know what happens.

THE HOT ZONE is much more entertaining and much scarier. It’s also a true story.

In 1980, the very sick, fifty-six year old Charles Monet arrives at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. He is a “human virus bomb” waiting to explode, or “crash” to use the biohazard terminology. Sitting in the Nairobi Hospital, waiting to be admitted, Monet crashes. Spewing blood from every body opening, sloughing the linings of his intestines, Monet is taken into intensive care and is looked after by Dr. Shem Musoke. While performing his ministrations Dr. Musoke is sprayed with a fountain of blood from the semi-conscious though still crashing Monet. Some of the blood gets into Dr. Musoke’s eyes. In the world of viruses, little things count.

In reading THE HOT ZONE, you can’t help but to compare it to Michael Creighton’s first novel, ANDROMEDA STRAIN. But the comparison is unfair. Creighton’s book was a tense, spell binding novel of what could happen when science is confronted with the unknown; Richard Preston’s book is about what actually does happen. Crieghton’s book is a superior work of fiction; Preston’s a superior work of investigative reporting.

THE HOT ZONE recounts the re-emergence of the Ebola and Marburg viruses. It is how Preston fits these viruses into modern life that fascinates. On page 383, he writes, “The paving of the Kinshasa Highway affected every person on earth, and turned out to be one of the most important events of the twentieth century. It has already cost at least ten million lives…”

It is Preston’s ability to express the connectivity of life as a backdrop to this story about viruses, to express the idea of villages, towns and cities, of all living things, connected in sharing a global time and place that places this book above the ordinary. It is achieved almost as a work of art. In defining a virus on page 85 for instance, he says that a virus is “strictly mechanical, no more alive than a jackhammer. Viruses are molecular sharks, a motive without a mind.”

Thus far, outbreaks of the Marburg and Ebola viruses have been restricted to Africa–the Sudan and Zaire primarily, the first recorded near the Ebola River in 1976. In 1989 a shipment of monkeys were delivered to Hazleton Research Products, the Reston Primate Quarantine Unit in Virginia. One or more of the monkeys were infected with the Ebola virus. It was what happened during the ensuing sixty days that provides the drama of THE HOT ZONE. The movie “Outbreak” deals with what could have happened if the monkeys had escaped containment. The facts however demonstrate how real the potential is of a virus emerging from the hinter regions of Africa and entering the global community via commercial transportation.

There are curiosities about events related in THE HOT ZONE. For instance, we can be impressed and utterly absorbed by the extraordinary precautions the USAMRIID takes in handling biohazards. But the more you read about the space-suits, the jet streams of Clorox, the hatboxes and all the rest, the more you come to believe that the precautions are more mental exercise than physical constraints in a dangerous environment. This is aptly brought home when one of the monkeys escapes its cage in Reston and the “hot” insert team must decide what to do.

Another curiosity in THE HOT ZONE is the understated assumption that a virus could come along and wipe out the human race. It is a curious assumption because it contradicts all the relevant indicators. For instance, the Marburg virus that infected and killed Charles Monet infected Dr. Shem Musoke but did not kill him.

If you read no other popular science book this year, read THE HOT ZONE.

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