Interview With John R. Maxim

(March, 2003)

John R. Maxim is the author of the New York Times bestselling Bannerman novels, including The Bannerman Solution and Bannerman's Promise, as well as Whistler's Angel, Haven, and The Shadow Box. He lives on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, where he's working on The Bannerman Prophecy.

Since the tragic events of September 11th 2001, the entire world has been focused on the possibility of biological warfare. Just a few short months ago, the popular perception was that no one had smallpox contagions except for the CDC in Atlanta and a similar facility in Russia. In reality, this story is incontestable fiction. The United States Defense Department is aware of at least six other countries that have it.

In Bannerman's Ghosts, Maxim uses the very real threat of bioterrorism as a springboard to weave a tale of action and adventure.

Cover of Bannerman's Ghosts by John R. Maxim
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Your novels always have a strong non-fiction element. In Bannerman's Ghosts, you deal with deadly bio- weapons. How did you do your research?

Through meeting a virologist who was willing to talk. She then put me in touch with some others. They fear that another Black Plague might be coming, but a worse one, and that we can do nothing to stop it.

Worse than Black Plague? The last one killed half the population of Europe.

This won't be bubonic. At its core will be smallpox. We've been told that only small quantities exist, well-guarded, kept frozen in Atlanta and in Russia. That's a comfortable fiction. It's a lie.

You say we can't stop it. What about mass vaccinations?

Vaccinations will help if it's a natural outbreak. If the outbreak is deliberate, antivirals won't help because no enemy is going to considerate enough to use a strain for which we have a remedy on hand. If we are attacked, it will be with something new. A mutated virus. Or one spliced with new material. Worst of all is a chimera virus.

What is that?

A new horror created by genetic splicing. First you take a strain of the smallpox virus that's unlike any strain we've seen before. A virus, like a human, doesn't make exact copies as it's reproduced over time in some laboratory. Mutation is natural. That's why there are so many strains of flu. A researcher may isolate the mutated copies, grow them in a different host, produce further mutations. That done, the researcher then adds something new. Ebola, for example. Or Marburg.

You say that can be done?

It has certainly been done. There are several places in the smallpox genome where foreign material can be added. You take the DNA from Marburg. Marburg is a good example. You isolate the disease- causing parts and you graft these onto the smallpox genome. This is splicing. This is known as recombinant DNA. We now have a chimera virus. You get Marburg's catastrophic mortality rate and the very high contagion of smallpox. You can isolate Marburg if that is all it is, but not if you're dealing with a chimera. It will have already spread before symptoms appear. It will overwhelm all efforts to treat it.

You use the word "catastrophic." How deadly is Marburg?

It has a 90% mortality rate unless treated before the worst symptoms appear. And that's if a treatment even exists. And that's if the chimera is identified by then. But it won't be if no-one's ever seen it before.

You make it sound hopeless. How vulnerable are we?

Well, the good news is that it takes an enormous facility to produce such weapons-grade toxins. It cannot be done in some Afghan cave. It can't be hidden under some Baghdad school, but perhaps it can under a so-called palace whose grounds total several hundred acres. Such a project would take a government's full support and an investment that runs into the billions.

What countries have such a program? Do you know?

Russia, Israel, Syria, Iran, Iraq, China, North Korea. Some of these have been suspended; some are farther ahead than others. But all are known to possess weapons-grade toxins.

But not the U.S.?

Oh, of course, the U.S.

But this country has forsworn the development of such weapons. It's been illegal since the 70's, has it not?

For the government, yes, so it uses private industry. Those industries, in turn, use their overseas subsidiaries so that none of this is done on U.S. soil. Those foreign subsidiaries have other advantages, among them the ability to compete with foreign industry unbound by many other legal constraints such as those forbidding bribery, for example. Or industrial espionage.

I should mention that this is precisely the "model" used in my book Bannerman's Ghosts: A U.S.-based multinational corporation uses a West African-based subsidiary to do this sort of "research". When the activities of that subsidiary cross ethical lines, the home-base claims ignorance.

Sub-Saharan Africa, by the way, is the perfect place for testing these viruses on humans. And it's the only place, really, where such testing can be done. The researchers will cause an outbreak limited to, say, a village. The authorities then presume that outbreak to be natural because viruses such as Marburg and Ebola are native to that area anyway. The researchers get to sit back and watch.

That sounds rather anti-business. Are you anti-business?

Not at all. I think it makes perfect sense. Our government, by the way, is pro-business for a reason and it's not just to get their campaign money. U.S. multinationals put the CIA to shame when it comes to intelligence gathering. In exchange we agree to turn a blind eye to their less attractive activities.

Back to smallpox or a chimera, what's the worst case scenario?

Two hundred million dead in this country alone. The attacker, however, would almost surely be identified through means that I've described in Bannerman's Ghosts. The attacker would face total annihilation and he knows it. It's the same as the nuclear deterrent.

Unless he's willing to die? Unless he sees his death as martydom?

You have just put your finger on the problem.

Posted with permission of the publisher.