How The Cobra Event Changed American Pandemic Response

How The Cobra Event Changed American Pandemic Response

by Aden Tate

Revised by: Effy Lindström

The year was 1998. And though author Richard Preston didn't know it yet, he was about to change the world.

It all started with his debut novel, The Cobra Event, a medical thriller that explores a devastating act of bioterrorism within New York City. While Preston hoped that the book would spell commercial success—and it did—its unintended consequence was a series of events that would eventually trigger policy changes at the federal level in America.

So, how did this happen?

Let's jump right in.


  • 01

    The Hunt for Articles

  • 02

    Raising Public Awareness

  • 03

    Writing Public Policy for Pandemic Response

  • 04

    The Strategic National Stockpile

  • 05

    Richard Preston’s Impact

  • 06


The Hunt for Articles

Our story begins in 1992.

A longstanding contributor to The New Yorker, Preston was on the hunt for article content in between deadlines when he stumbled upon the subject of emergent novel viruses. Stunned to discover that humanity was repeatedly encountering new viruses that we had zero immunity against, Preston decided this phenomenon would make for a compelling article topic.

Soon after, a potentially world-changing event happened: the Ebola virus emerged in Virginia.

It might surprise you to learn that, at the time, nobody knew what the Ebola virus was. Today, after all, you can pick a random person off the street—from a bricklayer or a physicist—and they are virtually guaranteed to know what the disease is. 

Well, you can thank Richard Preston for that.

Back in 1992, when a new variant of Ebola was discovered within the confines of a Reston, Virginia laboratory, Preston latched onto the subject for his next article. Then, a couple of year later, he expanded it into his investigative nonfiction title, The Hot Zone.

It was an instant success, selling millions of copies worldwide.

And while the bestseller instantly brought Preston newfound fame and fortune, it only laid the groundwork for what would come next.

Raising Public Awareness

With the release of The Hot Zone, awareness of Ebola—and its devastating effects—skyrocketed among American citizens. Naturally, this included healthcare professionals, who began taking an increased interest in fighting the deadly virus.

Ebola workers, circa 1976.

Thus, a flurry of research began commenced—all thanks to Preston. 

So significant was his impact, in fact, that American Scientist would go on to dub The Hot Zone one of the century's most game-changing works of scientific nonfiction. It even spawned Wolfgang Peterson’s 1995 film Outbreak.

But for Preston, this wasn’t the end. Noit was only the beginning.

You see, Preston's narrative approach to nonfiction—inspired by fellow New Yorker writer John McPhee—had given him a taste for creative storytelling. And he certainly had a flair for it, as his body of work had won him a reputation for irresistibly engaging and immersive prose. 

Wanting to push that writing style even further, he then decided to dive into the world of fiction.

The Beginnings

Anybody who has seen and enjoyed the Jurassic Park movies owes a debt of gratitude to the science fiction novelist and screenwriter Michael Crichton. Over the decades, his works, such as Prey, State of Fear, and Congoand of course the Jurassic Park book and movie—have gripped readers, including one Richard Preston.

A smiling Michael Crichton. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

At age fifteen, Preston picked up a copy of The Andromeda Strain and was instantly hooked. The world of the techno-thriller had enthralled him, an impact that would later be seen and felt in his novel, The Cobra Event.

Written as "a kind of fictional sequel" to his hit The Hot Zone, The Cobra Event blends extensively researched exposition with jaw-dropping storytelling. Indeed, the book's explosive opening involves a seizure-stricken schoolgirl eating her own lip, instantly hooking readers with Preston's bracingly vivid descriptions. 

Similarly grotesque scenarios follow, with further cases of New Yorkers collapsing and exhibiting signs of Lesch-Nyhan syndrome, causing them to eat themselves, pull their haemorrhaging eyeballs out of their sockets, and more.

As scientists soon discover, these victims' brains are melting inside their skulls from a novel virus known as "brainpox." What's more, the virus is synthetic, which can only one thingbrainpox was genetically-engineered. But by whom?

This is the question that protagonist Dr. Alice Austen hopes to answer as she races against the clock to save Manhattan residents from this lethal bioweapon.

All in all, the novel a terrifying story laced with adrenaline and astonishing medical accuracy.


Writing Public Policy for Pandemic Response

At the time of the novel's release, Bill Clinton was president. And just like many of his constituents, he read The Cobra Event.

The story chilled him, as it made a bioterrorist event on American soil seem suddenly and realistically possible.

As a matter of fact, Clinton was so concerned that by the end of that month, he gathered experts in microbiology, virology, and other related fields to discuss the extent to which The Cobra Event could become a reality.

The meeting did not assuage his fears. As such, Clinton called another meeting with members of his cabinet, as well as military officials, so they could hear from the experts, too.

It was clear: something needed to be done, and it needed to be done now.

Note that, at the time, the United States was particularly wary of attacks, both foreign and domestic. With regard to the former, it had been five years since terrorists had bombed the North Tower of the World Trade Center. 

Then, two years after that, Japanese doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo had carried out a deadly sarin attack in a busy Tokyo subway. And though this assault did not occur on American soil, it raised the possibility that the US could witness a similarly devastating act of terrorism.

A month later, it did, when Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols bombed the Federal Building in Oklahoma City. It was, and remains, the US' most lethal domestic terrorist attack.

This context maximized the impact that The Cobra Event had, as the possibility of an ideologically-motivated terrorist living in the United States, and committing acts of terrorism there, seemed all too frighteningly real.

The Strategic National Stockpile

By the end of Clinton's two meetings, the US put the beginnings of a plan into motion.

Thus, the end of April 1998 brought momentous changes with it, as fifty-one million dollars were allocated to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The goal? To create a national stockpile of medical gear, antitoxins, antibiotics, and other gear needed to fight the outbreak of a pandemic on American soil. (On top of this, Clinton requested $300 million to help state and local authorities to have the necessary training to deal with a widescale pandemic/epidemic caused by an attack and for research purposes.)

Initially named the National Pharmaceutical Stockpile, this plan incorporated several strategically placed caches of lifesaving gear throughout the nation. Later, in 2003, the Federal Government would change the name to the Strategic National Stockpile – a mass of equipment that ultimately brought pandemic protection to American civilians.

3Maryland Strategic National Stockpile.

The initiative, in itself, represented a massive shift in policy. Before The Cobra Event, American protocols for pandemic response had been to stockpile medical gear for pandemics and bio attacks solely for the military—a carryover from World War I and II and Cold War mindsets.

But now, for the first time, the federal government devised a plan to distribute lifesaving gear to civilians.

South Carolina Strategic National Stockpile. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Today, the Strategic National Stockpile is more extensive than it has ever been before.

One notable example of its activities has been its role in combatting Ebola, both in West Africa and, on occasion, the United States.

Ebola containment unit, 2021.

Had there been no Hot Zone, Cobra Event, and Richard Preston, would the research necessary to produce such a result have been possible within the past 20 years? This author believes that the answer is 'no.'

There’s no denying that Preston’s works have had a massive impact not only on the world of science, of public health but on American policy as well. Since writing those initial books within what he refers to as his “dark biology” series, Preston has gone on to write:

  • The Demon in the Freezer – a book about the history of smallpox and the research performed on it.

  • Panic in Level 4 – something of an overview of the macabre when it comes to lethal viruses across the planet.

  • Crisis in the Red Zone – the sequel to The Hot Zone, detailing the modern fight against Ebola.

He even was contacted by Michael Crichton’s widow about finishing up Michael’s last unfinished work, Micro, a modern, violent take on Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.

Richard Preston indeed showed Americans the need for disease preparedness

Whether or not the hands of wickedness spread disease or an isolated incident that spirals out of control, reading works such as The Hot Zone, Demon in the Freezer, and The Cobra Event can inform numerous Americans of the need for self-protection in the event of a biothreat emergency.

The Strategic National Stockpile is a plus for Americans everywhere, but it isn't enough. A true, prepared pandemic response has to take place at the individual level as well, and this is where it should begin. The medical shortages of gloves, cleaning agents, and hand sanitizers throughout the past two years have taught us this. It is not enough to rely on other human beings for the gear you need.

If this is the conclusion you have found yourself drawn towards – that you need to take actionable, concrete steps to better ensure your family’s safety – MIRA Safety has you covered. Literally. Our line of gas masks, HAZMAT suits, filters, decontamination mitts, and the like are used by militaries worldwide to protect their men against the dangers of working in biologically and chemically contaminated areas.

Image courtesy of Blue Line Syndicate Group

We even have the gear necessary to keep your children safe as you survive throughout one of these events/areas as well.

So, please pick up a copy of The Cobra Event, grab a cup of coffee, and peruse our product line. Provided it's not a pumpkin spice latte, we know you'll thoroughly enjoy all three.

Do you enjoy Richard Preston's books? In what other ways have you seen his work change the world of science and pandemic response? Do you have hard figures on the amount of money spent on Ebola research before and after The Cobra Event was released? Let us know what your thoughts are in the comment section below.

Frequently Asked Questions

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