The Little Virus That Could

updated 10/24/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/24/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

TO THE UNTRAINED EYE, THE TINY box in Richard Preston's Princeton, N.J., study appears to hold a dead fly encased in a 2-inch plastic tube. But the curious conversation piece is actually a lethal souvenir the author picked up while researching his latest project. "This is monkey liver tissue that was contaminated with the Ebola virus," Preston explains, twirling the sample in the mid-afternoon light. "It's been sterilized, but it once contained enough of the disease to kill 1 million people."

The destructive capacity of so-called monster viruses such as Ebola has long fascinated—and frightened—writer Preston, 40. Three years ago he began asking scientists a simple question about the deadly new infectious diseases that have emerged from the world's once-isolated rain forest areas: How easy is it for these viruses to find their way into urban populations?

Preston was shocked by what he discovered—an emotion that will doubtless be shared by readers of his new book, The Hot Zone (Random House). In it, Preston reveals how in 1989 lab monkeys imported from the Philippine tropics suffered an outbreak of Ebola at a privately owned holding facility in suburban Reston, Va., just 15 miles west of Washington. Worried that the lethal virus could harm humans, the government moved swiftly to contain the disease—and to downplay the danger, which it succeeded in doing until Preston looked into the outbreak and wrote about it in a vivid 1992 New Yorker article. "This was a story that grabbed me by the shirt and wouldn't let go," he says. "I remember thinking, 'My God, this is a real-life Andromeda strain.' "

It didn't take long for Hollywood to get infected with the story. Director Ridley Scott (Alien) snapped up the rights to The Hot Zone for $100,000 even before Preston finished the book. But the film project ran aground after stars Robert Redford and Jodie Foster backed out, unhappy with the screenplay. (Outbreak, a rival film on killer viruses, which is starring Dustin Hoffman and Rene Russo, has also run into script difficulties.)

Though Preston's tale won't make it to movie screens anytime soon, his book is expected to be one of the fall's big best-sellers. "The Hot Zone is going to sweep the population like fresh gossip in an office with e-mail," predicts a Los Angeles Times reviewer, noting that Preston marshaled the facts about Ebola into a harrowing ecothriller.

But the author admits that, at first, "it was difficult to get scientists to describe exactly what Ebola does to humans—even they get squeamish." One of several new viruses that have been detected in the last 25 years, Ebola first surfaced mysteriously among humans in the Sudan during the mid-'70s. The infection starts off as a fever and skin rash, but quickly turns much worse. The most virulent strain, Ebola Zaire, kills 90 percent of those who contract it. "The virus is obscenely efficient—it chews up everything except muscle and bone, and a person begins to retch black vomit and bleed through all the body's orifices," Preston says. "The liquefied mess that's left can infect people who touch it. Ebola takes 10 days to do what AIDS needs 10 years to accomplish." Ebola victims have, for the most part, been inhabitants of Africa, and many doctors say those who contract it should be isolated in a biocontainment room—the so-called hot zone—until they die or recover. Experts confirm that while viruses like Ebola are not yet a large-scale threat to America, that could change overnight "in a world of rapid travel," says Bob Howard, spokesman for the National Center for Infectious Diseases at Atlanta's Centers for Disease Control. "Any significant outbreak among humans would be catastrophic—this illness essentially turns flesh into rotting fruit."

In his book, Preston reports that during the 1989 incident a SWAT team of soldiers from Maryland's Fort Detrick, wearing biohazard suits, sealed off the Reston lab and destroyed the remaining 450 monkeys by lethal injection. To keep suspicions at a minimum, the Army used civilian vehicles for the five-day operation and misled reporters about the extent of the problem. "It was clear to Army experts that this was a national emergency," says Preston.

In the process of writing his book, Preston traveled to Africa in 1993 to visit one suspected source of the virus: Kenya's Kitum Cave. After fashioning his own protective suit ("I borrowed a mask and bought most of the outfit at a local industrial warehouse"), Preston ventured into the "biological mixing space" that animals and insects have used for millions of years—and where one early victim caught the virus. "Up until that time, I had adopted a detached attitude to the disease," he recalls. "But walking in, there was a moment of darkness. With bats swirling around my head and slimy green guano everywhere, I began wondering what the hell I was doing. But I needed to see this incredible environment firsthand."

Preston, who grew up in Wellesley, Mass., attributes his instinct for adventure to his parents, lawyer Jerome Preston Jr., now 72, and Dorothy, 63, a painter. In 1966 the Prestons took Richard, then 12, and his younger brothers, Douglas and David, on a trip to Africa. "They blew money they had saved for our college educations for the trip," says Preston. "It was a wise decision."

As a teenager, Preston had an aptitude for science—and anarchy. "Dick once built his own three-stage rocket that was supposed to land in Wellesley's town square a mile away, but he miscalculated the trajectory and it landed in a neighbor's yard," recalls Douglas, now 38, who has just published Jennie, his first novel. (David, 36, is a physician in Maine.)

After graduating from California's Pomona College in 1977, Preston won a scholarship in the graduate English program at Princeton University, where he met Michelle Parham, a fellow student he married in 1985. (The couple has three children—Marguerite, 5, Laura, 3, and Oliver, 7 months.)

As a freelance writer, Preston says he gravitated to scientific subjects because "I've always been fascinated by the human race's attempts to understand and control nature." In 1988 he wrote First Light, a highly praised account of astronomers searching for the origins of the universe. His second book, American Steel, published in 1992, chronicled the creation of a modern mill. "Dick has a real talent for taking complicated scientific subjects and writing about them with great flair," notes author John McPhee, a friend and former teacher at Princeton.

Preston hopes his book will do more than simply scare readers. "We need biological listening posts in tropical areas to identify emerging viruses before they get out of control," he says. "Nature can often be a force of great power and cruelty. It won't adapt itself to humans—we must do the adapting or suffer the consequences."

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