In October of l989, Macaque monkeys, housed at the Reston Primate Quarantine Unit in Reston, Virginia, began dying from a mysterious disease at an alarming rate. The monkeys, imported from the Philippines, were to be sold as laboratory animals. Twenty-nine of a shipment of one hundred died within a month. Dan Dalgard, the veterinarian who cared for the monkeys, feared they were dying from Simian Hemorrhagic Fever, a disease lethal to monkeys but harmless to humans. Dr. Dalgard decided to enlist the aid of the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) to help diagnose the case. On November 28th, Dr. Peter Jahlring of the Institute was in his lab testing a virus culture from the monkeys. Much to his horror, the blood tested positive for the deadly Ebola Zaire virus. Ebola Zaire is the most lethal of all strains of Ebola. It is so lethal that nine out of ten of its victims die. Later, the geniuses at USAMRIID found out that it wasn't Zaire, but a new strain of Ebola, which they named Ebola Reston. This was added to the list of strains: Ebola Zaire, Ebola Sudan, and now, Reston. These are all level-four hot viruses. That means there are no vaccines and there are no cures for these killers.
In 1976 Ebola climbed out of its primordial hiding place in the jungles of Africa, and in two outbreaks in Zaire and Sudan wiped out six hundred people. But the virus had never been seen outside of Africa and the consequences of having the virus in a busy suburb of Washington DC is too terrifying to contemplate. Theoretically, an airborne strain of Ebola could emerge and circle the world in about six weeks. Ebola virus victims usually "crash and bleed," a military term which literally means the virus attacks every organ of the body and transforms every part of the body into a digested slime of virus particles. A big point that Preston wanted to get across was the fact that the public thinks that the HIV virus is quite possibly the most horrible virus on Earth, when no one takes into mind the effects and death of the victims of Ebola. Preston shows how Ebola and Marburg (a close relative of Ebola) is one hundred times more contagious, one hundred times as lethal, and one hundred times as fast as HIV. "Ebola does in ten days what it takes HIV ten years to accomplish," wrote Richard Preston. The virus, though, has a hard time spreading, because the victims usually die before contact with a widespread amount of civilians. If there were to be another outbreak in North America, the results would be unspeakable.
Upon reading The Hot Zone, one could easily believe that this compelling yet terrifying story sprang from the imaginations of Stephen King or Michael Crichton. But the frightening truth is that the events actually occurred and that "could-be-catastrophe" was avoided by the combined heroic efforts of various men and women from USAMRIID and the Center for Disease Control. Preston writes compassionately and admiringly of the doctors, virologists and epidemiologists who are the real-life Indiana Jones' of the virus trail. Some like Dr. Joe McCormick, Karl Johnson, and CJ Peters spent years tracking down deadly viruses in the jungles of South America and Africa, some narrowly escaping death. Their work is filled with courage, brilliance and sometimes petty rivalries. Others, like Dr. Nancy Jaax have lived rather conventional lives, aside from the fact that they don a space suit and work with highly lethal viruses on a regular basis.
Preston has written a fast-paced and fascinating novel of medical panic. His gripping narrative is filled with horrifying and gore-filled descriptions and tension-building plot turns. From depictions of events at a Belgian Hospital in Africa to the nerve-racking laboratory scenes in Virginia, he is adept at keeping the reader riveted. At the conclusion the reader is left with the chilling and fact based haunting after thought "what if?"