Review: The Cobra Event by Richard Preston (1997)


I have always had a unexplained love of stories about epidemics and threats of apocalyptic level disease outbreaks. I like disaster movies in general, but in particular ones featuring disease, whether natural or a bio weapon. There aren’t too many terrific novels in this genre, since many tend to be the same. It’s exciting up until the point where the virus outbreak occurs, and then it sort of sinks into typical survivalist post-apoc fare.

This one, however, is very likely the best NOVEL written ever about a viral outbreak. The author, Richard Preston, really knows his stuff. He is the author of “The Hot Zone”, the best known work of non-fiction about dangerous viruses like ebola, marsburg, etc. Specifically, “The Hot Zone” focuses on the threat of zoonosis, or viruses contracted from animals, especially with the leveling of the rainforest (which exposes new species and their bugs), modern transportation, etc.

“The Cobra Event” focuses on a different kind of threat–bio engineered and weaponized viruses. It’s a fictional thriller that features an engineered virus that someone is threatening to loose in New York City. It’s a horrible virus that’s been engineered from a moth virus and the common cold to create a “brain pox”. The symptoms are extremely gruesome and the bug is 100% lethal. In the story, a few mysterious deaths show up in NYC and a CDC doctor is sent to investigate. She (Austin) realizes it’s a very dangerous new bug and calls in the big guns.

The book is mostly procedural/investigative. The CDC and FBI get involved trying to decode the virus and then catch the guy who has it before he lets it go in a huge dose and kills most of mankind. There are also good elements of medical thriller in the book, with vivid description of the cases and autopsies. There’s a great deal of real history of biological weapons mixed in, sometimes tangents that go on for pages (such as about the weapons inspections in Iraq). Some readers just looking for a seamless thriller might get annoyed at these info dumps, but I found it all really interesting, and the real life stories added to the sense of reality that made the book more all the more frightening.

Fortunately, the book never does devolve into survivalist/post-apoc tedium since the worst is avoided. As such it reads more like an action/investigation thriller, which I liked.

All around, this book gets 5 huge hot viral stars from me. I can’t quite believe I never read this before, but I read “The Hot Zone” way back when (also recommended), so perhaps at the time I thought this would be redundant. Not. I’d say this is the best viral thriller ever published and definitely a strong pager-turner that reads like a Forsythe, Ludlum, etc. If you like creepy virus stories, this is a must read.

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