In his novel, “And Evil Shall Come,” Paul Ellner, Ph.D., describes a frightening scenario. Al Qaeda has set up a factory in a remote part of the Sand Hills of Nebraska, a huge region of barren prairieland. With the help of a corrupt Nebraska senator, the fanatical group is able to manufacture anthrax without arousing government suspicion. When a reporter, Kate Morrison, who works for an obscure agricultural trade magazine, accidentally stumbles upon the plant, the reader goes along on a wild ride as she attempts to get to the bottom of an operation that seeks to devastate an unsuspecting public.
P&S Online spoke with Dr. Ellner, who from 1963 to 1991 was professor of microbiology and of pathology at P&S and director of the clinical microbiology service at Presbyterian Hospital. Now a professor emeritus, Dr. Ellner lives with his wife, Connie, in Torrington, Conn., where he pursues the passion that began in his retirement – writing novels. He previously published two non-fiction works, “Understanding Infectious Disease” and “The Biomedical Scientist as Expert Witness.”
P&S: The title of your book, “And Evil Shall Come,” seems like a portent. Do you think evil in the form of biological weapons is coming our way?
Paul Ellner: Absolutely. And it’s not just my belief, but the belief of almost everyone in our government who is dealing with the problem. I think there’s a high probability this will happen.
Why did you choose to write a thriller about biological weapons?
I used to be an officer in the U.S. Public Health Service, helping to set up disaster medical assistance teams. I was involved with the study of biological attacks, trying to discern the types of organisms that might be used in such attacks. That experience and the events of the past decade have certainly engaged my imagination.
In your book Al Qaeda unleashes an anthrax attack at an auto show at the Javits Center in New York, in which thousands are killed. The operatives use remote control devices to explode anthrax ampoules hidden in small dolls and placed inside the center’s air vents. The air is poisoned but no one feels anything until days later. This scenario seems frighteningly plausible.
Years ago a government agency conducted a mock test, releasing harmless bacteria in the New York City subways. They found that the air circulation system in the subways spread the bacteria widely and wildly. People in subways, tunnels, large office buildings, stadiums, or even in enormous spaces like convention centers are vulnerable to organisms floating in the air.
Why did you choose anthrax as the weapon that wreaks havoc?
A biological organism has to meet certain criteria in order for it to be turned into a weapon of mass destruction. It must be produced in large quantities, it must be stable while stored, and, it must be able to survive the “trauma” of its delivery system – in a bomb, for example. Unfortunately, anthrax meets these criteria. Anthrax is relatively easy to produce in large quantities, and its spores – which can survive for years – are extremely stable and aren’t destroyed in an explosion. The spores also are resistant to sunlight, as well as to ordinary disinfectants.
Some hemorrhagic fever viruses, such as Ebola and Marburg, also could be turned into biological weapons, as could smallpox. But because anthrax is easier to weaponize I think it will be the one most likely used.
We haven’t seen an anthrax attack since 9/11. Could that mean the threat is largely over?
While I have no “inside” knowledge, I suspect that the threat of a biological attack on the United States is actually increasing. I think Al Qaeda is already here. Whether they are organized into active cells, only the government knows.
Could biological weapons do as much damage as, say, a nuclear weapon?
Biological weapons, along with nuclear weapons, are classed as weapons of mass destruction, which means they can kill thousands. And if the organism happens to be one that’s transmitted person to person, like smallpox, it can set off an epidemic, as I described in the book occurring in Israel.
Do you think the government is doing enough to protect Americans from the likelihood of biological attacks?
I think our government is doing as much as is feasible right now. It is gathering intelligence, monitoring air at selected locations, inspecting water and food supplies, training lab personnel, first responders, and physicians and stock-piling vaccines and antibiotics. Despite such precautions, it is probable that given the enmity of terrorist groups, we can expect biological attacks. Continued improvement in detection technology and maintaining public awareness will increase our safety somewhat.
On a cheerier note, you have already written another novel, “Stranger in Time,” about a young farmer during the American Revolution who finds himself transported to the 21st century. How would you describe this late-life love of writing?
I have been interested in writing for many years, but it’s always been non-fiction. With these most recent books I feel that I’m tapping into creativity that’s been there but hasn’t been expressed. I work every morning from 10 to 12, and I’m passionate about it. If a day goes by without writing about the characters and plots that percolate in my brain, I feel like I’ve missed out on something.
To learn more about Dr. Ellner’s work, visit his website, www.Ellner.com. His books are available online to order and download at www.booklocker.com, www.amazon.com (print only), and the Apple iBookstore.