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How The Cobra Event Changed American Pandemic Response

In 1998, author Richard Preston was about to change the world, but he didn't know how. His very first novel, The Cobra Event, about an act of bioterrorism within New York City, was about to spawn a sequence of events that would eventually lead to policy changes at the federal level in America.

Here is how it all panned out.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

  • 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

    FAQ’s

The Hunt for Articles

Having been a long-standing contributor to The New Yorker, Preston was on the hunt for article content in between deadlines when he stumbled across 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 would make for a compelling article topic for his next piece.

Soon after, a potentially world-changing event happened. The Ebola virus emerged in Virginia. At the time, nobody knew what the Ebola virus was. However, that conversation with anybody today, whether discussing with a bricklayer or a physicist – everybody has heard of Ebola. You can thank Richard Preston for that.

But then, a new variant of Ebola was discovered within the confines of a Reston, Virginia laboratory. Latching onto the subject for his next article, Preston wrote a piece for The New Yorker, later expanding that article into the book The Hot Zone.

The novel was an instant success. And while the book 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, the American public first became aware of just what Ebola was – and what its capabilities were. This frenzy of public interest led to the inevitable consequence that those who worked in public health and healthcare soon became more interested in what the human race could do to fight the deadly virus.

Ebola workers, circa 1976.

A flurry of research began regarding this virus, despite the author's lack of formal medical or microbiological training. Preston was just a shy bookworm who had just written something of interest that would change the world.

Preston’s impact on Ebola research was so significant during this time that American Scientist would later say in 1999 that his The Hot Zone was one of the most game-changing books written within the field of science within the past hundred years. It even spawned Wolfgang Peterson’s 1995 film Outbreak.

But for Preston, this wasn’t the end. No, it was only the beginning.

The Hot Zone was different. While a nonfiction narrative, it was much more than that. It was written in a style that kept the reader glued to their chair, unable to put the book down, needing to know how the threat of Ebola could be contained.

Preston had discovered the power of using non-fiction writing in this way from John McPhee, another writer for The New Yorker, while Preston was in school working towards his doctorate, noting that non-fiction primarily appeared to be an unexplored field of writing. Having hacked his way through this jungle, leading the way for others to follow, Preston then decided to jump into the world of fiction.

The Beginnings

Anybody who has seen the Jurassic Park movies and enjoyed them can thank the work of science fiction/thriller writer Michael Crichton. His works, such as Prey, State of Fear, and Congo, had gripped readers for decades, and one of the future writers he would later have a profound impact on was Richard Preston.

Michael Crichton. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

At 15, Preston picked up a copy of The Andromeda Strain and was instantly hooked. The world of the technothriller had enthralled him, and this impact would later be seen and felt in Preston's novel The Cobra Event.

Written as a fictional sequel to his hit The Hot Zone, The Cobra Event was a first of its kind. The story begins with a schoolgirl collapsing from a seizure in New York. Shortly after that, more reported cases of New Yorkers collapsing and exhibiting signs of Lesch-Nyhan syndrome occurred, causing them to eat themselves, pull their eyeballs out of their heads, and more.

Scientists soon discovered that these victims' brains were melting inside their skulls from a novel virus known as brainpox, a synthetic virus that would be impossible to come about within the natural world. This can mean only one thing – brainpox has been created. But by whom?

A hunt begins for a rogue, evil scientist conducting acts of bioterrorism against New York City, and much like a Michael Crichton novel, the reader can be found with the book in hand for hours on end.

It's a terrifying story laced with adrenaline that took Preston's work one step further. Not only had he written a book that revolutionized the field of public health, but he had now just written a story that would change the United States of America's response to public health threats. He just needed to get that story into the right hands.

The right hands picked up the story in April of 1998.

Writing Public Policy for Pandemic Response

Bill Clinton was the U.S. President at the time and had just finished reading The Cobra Event. Like many others, Clinton was terrified, as the story detailed how a bioterrorist event on American soil was suddenly and realistically possible. Richard Preston had started a new discussion within America, and people were listening.

Clinton was so concerned that by the end of that month, he gathered experts in microbiology, virology, and other related fields to discuss how much of The Cobra Event could become a reality. That meeting didn't qualm his fears. Instead, Clinton called another meeting with members of his cabinet and other military officials and had them listen to the same information from the experts.

Something needed to be done, and it needed to be done now.

For further context and timing, this was when America had already seen several attacks against it. Osama bin Laden was linked to his first bombing attack against the World Trade Center. The Federal Building in Oklahoma City was bombed by domestic terrorists Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols. And doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo in Japan carried out a deadly sarin attack in a busy Tokyo subway.

Preston released The Cobra Event at the perfect time to help stoke the idea in peoples' minds that, yes, not only was this a possibility but there were, in fact, evil people out there who were more than happy to put these types of events into play.

The Strategic National Stockpile

By the end of those two meetings, the U.S. put the beginnings of a plan into place. The end of April 1998 brought momentous changes with it. Fifty-one million dollars had just been 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. (Clinton also 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 these lifesaving pieces of gear throughout the nation. Later, the Federal Government would change the name to the Strategic National Stockpile – a mass of equipment that brought pandemic protection to American civilians.

3Maryland Strategic National Stockpile.

The initiative, in itself, was a massive shift in policy. Before The Cobra Event, American policy for pandemic response had been to stockpile medical gear for pandemics and bio attacks solely for the military. An attitude that likely carried over from World War 1 & 2 and the developments throughout The Cold War. Now, for the first time, the federal government had something of a plan to distribute lifesaving gear to the civilians the military was previously tasked with protecting internally.

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

Today, the Strategic National Stockpile is more extensive than it has ever been before. On an even more critical note, too, is the fact that there is now a vaccine for Ebola. While only the Zaire clade of Ebola can currently be protected against, the rVSV-ZEBOV (Ervebo) vaccine is the first one in human history that can help to prevent the spread of Ebola. While Ervebo is relatively new (meaning there's a lot about it that we still do not know), it has a 100% success rate in keeping people from contracting Ebola Zaire.

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

What other accomplishments does Richard Preston have to his name?
What gear does MIRA Safety sell that will protect me from Ebola?
Why can’t I rely on the Strategic National Stockpile for this gear?