The Cobra Event
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The Cobra Event is a 1998 thriller novel by Richard Preston describing an attempted bioterrorism attack on the United States. The perpetrator of the attack has genetically engineered a virus, called "Cobra", that fuses the incurable and highly contagious common cold with one of the world's most virulent diseases, smallpox. The disease that results from the virus, called brainpox in the novel, has symptoms that mimic those of Lesch–Nyhan syndrome and the common cold. The book is divided between descriptions of the virus and the government's attempt to stop the imminent threat posed by it.
The book is divided into 6 sections. The first section, called "Trial", starts with a teenage girl named Kate Moran who dies violently one day in school. The next section, titled "1969", describes tests done in the 1960s by the U.S. government involving weaponized viruses. The third section, "Diagnosis", describes the autopsy of Kate Moran and introduces the key characters of Dr. Alice Austen, Mark Littleberry, and Will Hopkins. The last three sections—"Decision", "Reachdeep", and "The Operation"—describe these three characters' journey to discover the source of the lethal Cobra virus.
"Cobra" and its effects
The virus described in the novel is a fictional chimera that attacks the human brain. The infective agent, code-named "Cobra" by the protagonists, is a recombinant virus made from modified variants of the nuclear polyhedrosis virus (which normally infects moths and butterflies), rhinovirus, and smallpox.
The infection initially presents common cold-like symptoms and a characteristic blistering process in the nose and mouth, before invading the nervous system. Although not as contagious as the influenza virus, it spreads rapidly through the same vectors as the common cold, mainly via airborne particulate matter coming in contact with the mucous membranes of the respiratory system. Although tussis is the primary source of these particles, the inclusion of nuclear polyhedrosis virus allows Cobra to form crystals, which can be easily processed into a fine powder.
The optic nerves of the eye, accessed through the eyelid, and olfactory nerves of the nose provide a direct pathway for the neurotropic Cobra virus to spread to the central nervous system, where the virus takes root. Once present in brain matter, the virus begins to replicate exponentially. Infected brain cells experience growth of viral crystals in their nuclei, eventually leading to lysis of the cell. The brain stem, which controls the basic functions of life, is heavily affected by this growth. The Cobra virus also knocks out the gene for the enzyme hypoxanthine-guanine phosphoribosyltransferase (HGPRT), whose absence causes Lesch-Nyhan syndrome. As a result, patients experience both autocannibalistic urges and increased aggression toward others. These neurological symptoms develop within a matter of hours, eventually resulting in death due to the severe damage to the brain stem. Cobra is so aggressive in its growth that autopsies reveal a brain almost liquefied by cell lysis.
Impact of the book
President Bill Clinton was reportedly sufficiently impressed by the scenarios described in the book that he asked aides and officials for closer study and suggested more funding for research into bioterrorism threats. However, there is some variation in the assorted accounts of this episode in his administration: about his degree of concern, who was asked to help, the depth of inquiry, the formal status of his orders, and the magnitude of expense involved.
- "Where Terrorism Meets Optimism", Margo Nash, New York Times, 24 Nov 2002
- "President Bill Clinton asked the F.B.I. to determine whether the events described in The Cobra Event could really happen."
- Fatal Future?: Transnational Terrorism and the New Global Disorder, p. 117, footnote 2, which cites "U.S. Still Unprepared for Biological Attack", Dallas Morning News, April 26, 1998, and says
- "...Clinton's reading of Preston's novel reportedly led Clinton to issue an executive order directing drastically increased funding for research on the threat of advanced biological terrorist weapons."
- "Germs: Biological Weapons and America's Secret War. (Political booknotes: plague upon us)", Washington Monthly, 1 Nov 2001; review of Germs written by Judith Miller, Stephen Engelberg, and William Broad, 2001.
- "Clinton began pushing the book on friends and fellow government officials, including House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and had Pentagon officials brief him on its plausibility. The response he got was not reassuring. From then on, in the words of one national security official, Clinton became "obsessed" with the threat of biological weapons."
- Our Cannibals, Ourselves, Priscilla L. Walton, p. 157, footnote 8
- "According to [Judith] Miller et al., President Clinton was so struck by the scenario depicted in The Cobra Event that he asked John Hamre, deputy secretary of defense, "whether he thought the novel's scenario was plausible. Could a terrorist unleash an unstoppable plague with designer pathogens?" (226). Subsequently, a committee was struck to investigate bioterrorist scenarios."
- Terrorism: Critical Concepts in Political Science, David C. Rapoport, p. 186
- "In April 1998, as a result of having read the Richard Preston novel, The Cobra Event, the president held a meeting with a group of scientists and Cabinet members to discuss the threat of bioterrorism. The briefing impressed Clinton so much that he asked the experts to brief senior officials in DOD and HHS. On May 6 they delivered a follow-up report, calling for the stockpiling of vaccines (an idea that was soon dropped.) The Washington Post reported with regard to the stockpiling proposal that 'Some administration officials outside the White House expressed surprise at how fast the president and his National Security Council staff had moved on the initiative .... noting with some concern that it had not gone through the customary deliberative planning process.'  Critics noted that not all scientific experts were disinterested; some stood to gain financially if the government invested large sums in developing technology against bioterrorism."
- Furedi, F. (2007). Invitation to Terror. Expanding the Empire of the Unknown. London: Continuum.