Pop-Culture Pandemic!

Biological threats provide fertile plot material for books, movies and videogames

Viruses and bacteria in the form of biological weapons and natural disasters have infected the storylines of science-fiction movies, books and best-selling documentaries. The country’s recent focus on anti-terrorism has brought more attention to the subject, but scientists and authors have been warning against bio-disasters for several decades. It’s nearly impossible to catch all of the mad scientist/corrupt government/contaminated monkey stories out there, but here’s a small sample of pop-culture encounters with biological peril–some truth, some fiction, and some eerily prophetic of events to come.

The Andromeda Strain (1969), Michael Crichton
Before biological warfare was an imminent threat from other countries, scientists feared that foreign viruses could come from outer space–an idea that might have seemed far-fetched until 1969. Published shortly after mankind’s first steps on the moon, The Andromeda Strain sparked fears that America’s astronauts might bring more than space rocks back to Earth. In the fictional novel, a government satellite collecting space pathogens for use in biological warfare crashes in Arizona, and soon the residents of a small town begin to die of a mysterious, highly contagious virus.

The Stand (1978), Stephen King
Hailed by many as Stephen King’s greatest work, The Stand is certainly not the only postapocalyptic story in which a biological disease kills off most of mankind (more recent examples include the films 12 Monkeys and 28 Days Later). Although most of the book focuses on the few survivors after the plague, the first 300 pages are devoted to the rapidly spreading virus that kills more than 99 percent of the world’s population. After an experiment sets the virus loose in a government lab, one man escapes and heads across the country, contaminating everyone in his path with what King refers to as a “deadly chain letter.”

The Hot Zone (1994), Richard Preston
A deadly, infectious virus has broken out in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. It kills 90 percent of its victims, causing a total failure of their internal organs, and there is no cure. This is a true story. In 1989 the African-borne Ebola virus appeared in humans near a primate research facility in Reston, Virginia †possibly the result of mankind’s destruction of the rainforest, Preston suggests. He describes in detail the effects of the Ebola virus on the human body, along with how the government contained the virus during this potentially disastrous outbreak.

The Coming Plague (1994), Laurie Garrett
“Preparedness demands understanding,” writes Garrett in this analysis of viruses ranging from Legionnaires’ disease to HIV and of how they have been affected by our changing society. Drug abuse, airline travel, overpopulation, pollution and global warming have allowed viruses to spread and infiltrate immune systems at an alarming rate, and Garrett argues that it will take a global effort to reverse the trend before humans become extinct.

Outbreak (1995)
When a rival studio purchased the movie rights to The Hot Zone, Warner Bros. crafted its own, fictional story about an African virus, set loose in the U.S. by an illegally smuggled monkey. When several patients’ flu-like symptoms lead to sudden, horrible deaths, a team of disease experts (led by Dustin Hoffman and Rene Russo) must race to identify the virus, keep it contained, and develop a cure, while other victims unknowingly spread the virus across the country.

Rainbow Six (1998), Tom Clancy
In Clancy’s earlier novel Executive Orders, hero Jack Ryan finds himself facing a bioterrorism plot when an airline attack kills the U.S. president and most of Congress. Ryan is elevated to the position of president and must battle an Iranian government threatening to unleash an Ebola-like virus on the country. Rainbow Six picks up with the implementation of a new anti-terrorism force, led by exâ€Navy SEAL John Clark. Clark and his team discover that an extreme environmentalist group plans to use the Iranians’ virus to wipe out most of humanity, merely to ensure the survival of nature itself.

Syphon Filter series (1999â€2004)
In this four-part Playstation adventure, you play secret agent Gabe Logan, a fugitive from your own corrupt government’s intelligence organization. After uncovering a plot to create a deadly virus and sell it to the highest bidder, your partner is infected and kidnapped for use as a guinea pig. It is up to you to find the vaccine, rescue your partner, and stop the virus as it begins to mutate and spread across the globe. The first three installments of the series were created for Playstation; the fourth–Syphon Filter: The Omega Strain–was created for PSII.

Chill Factor (1999)
Think Speed, but instead of Keanu, it’s Cuba; instead of a bus, it’s an ice cream truck; and instead of an ordinary bomb, it’s a temperature-controlled biological virus. Our plucky heroes must keep the weapon away from a military commander-turned-terrorist, and below 50 degrees at all times, to prevent a detonation that would spread the virus hundreds of miles.

Biohazard: The Chilling True Story of the Largest Covert Biological Weapons Program in the World–Told from Inside by the Man Who Ran It (2000), Ken Alibek
Putting anthrax on a warhead, aimed at a city across the globe. Discovering an invisible, untraceable agent, perfect for political assassinations. Attempting to turn the AIDS virus into a weapon of mass destruction. A former Russian scientist reveals the stories behind projects like these, in his memoir about the two decades he spent in the country’s biological-weapons program before defecting to the U.S.

Vector (2000), Robin Cook
Another Russian scientist, this one fictional, moves to New York in pursuit of the American dream and a better life. Instead he becomes a disgruntled taxi driver, vowing revenge on the so-called land of opportunity that has been so cruel to him. He teams up with two white supremacists intent on destroying the government, and they release anthrax and botulism toxins throughout the city. Two medical examiners join the story–published shortly before the real-life anthrax attacks of 2001–to investigate the mysterious epidemic.

The Demon in the Freezer (2002), Richard Preston
This book opens with an account of the 2001 anthrax attacks and quickly moves back in time to discuss the history of biological weapons. Specifically, it focuses on smallpox, from its epidemic in the 1900s, to its eradication and storage, to current suspicions that frozen stockpiles could now be used in biological warfare. At the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, a top scientist hopes to find a drug that will be effective against future outbreaks of smallpox–or possibly a stronger, more resistant “superpox.” Preston tells the true story of this dangerous but potentially life-saving research, as well as the Institute’s response to the terrorist attacks of 2001.