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Beach Blanket Bioethics: Labor Day Weekend Special Edition

Just in time for the last weekend of summer, Lori Andrews has reaffirmed her status as the nation’s foremost bioethicist/crime novelist. Immunity, Andrews’s third bioethics-themed thriller in three years, is her best yet.

This time, geneticist-physician Alex Blake – civilian scientist at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, member of a top-secret Homeland Security commission on bioterrorism – investigates a regional outbreak of a mysterious autoimmune disease that results in massive organ failure and other memorably gruesome symptoms. Along the way, she spends a night in a jail on the border, teams up with the DEA (in the form of this book’s love interest, an undercover agent) and the DNA (in the form of this book’s most charming character, a computer named Sam that runs on nucleic acid), and impersonates both a Navy pilot and an NIH program officer.

Bioethics themes include research conduct, drug funding (in all senses), disability rights, surveillance technology as a public health tool and as a threat to privacy and liberty, and debates over the safety of childhood vaccines. Another theme that runs through all of Andrews’s thrillers: the history of medicine and of scientific discovery in the service of public health. When Alex needs a break from running genetic sequences, she visits the National Museum of Health and Medicine at the AFIP. When her caffeine-fueled spirits flag – her drug of choice is dark roast – she meditates on her hero, Walter Reed, the AFIP director who identified how yellow fever was transmitted. But when she meets a modern-day Reed who rationalizes his own disregard for the niceties of informed consent (“public health is always a trade-off”) she confronts him with the horrifying consequences of his actions even as she acknowledges its possible benefits.

True to genre conventions, Alex Blake gets hardly any sleep in this fast-paced narrative. (Must be all that caffeine.) Lori Andrews may not sleep much any more, either.

Andrews’s website offers an excerpt from Immunity.

Published on: August 29, 2008
Published in: Arts & Ideas

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