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by Caitlin Burke

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And Ebola is back! As if it ever left, but the subtitle to Virus Ground Zero: Stalking the Killer Viruses with the Centers for Disease Control is simply misleading. Far from a thrilling trek through exotic virus-ridden lands, Regis offers a sort of querulous anti-history of the CDC, complete with political posturing and a few insults tossed at other journalists. A primary target is the alleged millenarian alarmism of Laurie Garrett, author of The Coming Plague. One wonders if he read the book, but he seems to think that its title (also misleading, in fairness) says it all, that talking about Ebola means talking about the end of life as we know it. And Regis kindly offers to disabuse us of this notion, albeit unimpressively, in this book that has arrived far too late to cash in on "heat of the moment" indulgence.

So many things are happening in this book -- smugness, sensationalism, pandering, mudslinging, pontificating -- but the whole is less than the sum of its parts. The writing makes The Hot Zone (a touted and admired source) look measured and elegant, and the occasional glimpses of actual "maverick" physicians makes one yearn for the obviously knowledgeable and experienced narrators of Level 4: Virus Hunters of the CDC. Regis has slapped this capitalizing title onto a book that also takes the CDC to task for everything from having politics to ugly architecture, and the people he describes as joining the CDC "to make a difference" are actually doing homely public health duties, not stalking incurable diseases in foreign countries.

Pan East ... way East to Africa: Regis does set some of his book in Africa. He needs to set the Ebola scene so he can support his political argument, that we are in an age not of killer viruses but of virus paranoia (with a few more reminders that the CDC is just a bloated bureaucracy that has fanned the flames of that paranoia in order to clear itself some more territory into which to expand.) He argues, of course, the same way Joe McCormick argues: Ebola is scary and exotic when you celebrate the folks in the trenches, but for experts Ebola is no big deal, and to claim otherwise is just hysteria.

Regis's book feels like a Tom Clancy minus about 700 pages. Obvious in its conservative politics, heartfelt in its patriotic fervor, Virus Ground Zero is, at least, mercifully short. Regis makes a sensationalist argument accusing others of sensationalism, and the positions he argues against are almost all deliberate misconstructions of quotes and forced implications for the loaded images of others. Why shouldn't a doctor call Ebola "the big one"? An incurable disease that shocks and frightens a community -- even one that kills less than a dozen people, especially if it does so in a visually arresting way -- can reasonably be called a serious threat by the practitioners to whom the terrified community turns for help. Maybe Ebola kills too quickly and can be contained too easily to travel very far, but it is a fatal viral illness in a world lulled into complacency by the antibiotic age. "We have no magic bullet" is a pretty important lesson, and it's time we learned it.

Virus Ground Zero drops a lot of names but has no index, fitting in a rambling narrative that is more about spin than science. Regis thanks his wife for her support and assurance that he could "complete the project within a demanding time frame" and other acknowledgments -- of globe-trotting travel arrangements and a star-speaker demonstration of a basic lab technique -- show us what kind of project this was. The patients are long since dead or recovered, and the most chilling stories in this book have been told and retold elsewhere for two years and more. The only thing Regis contributes is the least interesting thing about the book: a confused anti-warning combined with a paean to smaller government that drags the discourse onto the pulpit more than one time too many. Ah well. Ebola still sells books.

Ebola: Books and Links was compiled in August 1996 and has been updated to include a reference to Virus Ground Zero. It still includes thumbnail sketches of related books.

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