'Germs Gone Wild: How the Unchecked Development of Domestic Bio-Defense Threatens America'


Kenneth King
453 Pages | Buy this book

In the wake of 9/11, when anthrax attacks were startling a shellshocked country, researchers rushed to study potential biological weapons agents. But nearly a decade hence, the real threat isn’t white powder in an envelope, King says. Poor oversight, inadequate security, and good old-fashioned human error make the growing number of high-security bioresearch labs an increasing danger to everyday people.

What’s the Big Deal?

The post-9/11 boom in research and development for biodefense has cost more than $60 billion. Labs have popped up across the country with limited federal oversight—or even a count of how many there are. And we’re talking nasty diseases that are housed in these places: some are incurable, like Ebola and the 1918 flu. King protested the lab built in his hometown, and here he’s arguing the bigger picture. The government’s biodefense efforts might have made us even less safe than before.

Buzz Rating: Whisper

Germs Gone Wild has been reviewed by the Council for Responsible Genetics, and King has made a few radio appearances.

One-Breath Author Bio

King is a former English professor at Western Kentucky University and a lawyer who worked for the Appalachian Research and Defense Fund, a nonprofit law firm.

The Book, in His Words

“The huge biodefense expansion which has been created and is now being frantically defended by the biodefense public relations machine is almost certainly a greater danger to our country than any current would-be bioterrorists” (page 435).

Don’t Miss These Bits

1. Where’d I put that plague? Anthrax has gone missing, as have Brucella and other pathogens. In 2005 plague-infected mice disappeared from the Public Health Research Institute at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. The facility “decided they were eaten by other mice or incinerated,” (page 138). Hope so.

Uncalculated risk. Overconfidence, conferred by official “risk assessments,” can lead to what University of Texas professor Lloyd Dumas calls “lethal arrogance” (page 143). Just because it hasn’t happened before doesn’t mean it can’t happen, King says. Just months after a director of a high-level Canadian lab said that no researchers had ever been infected by SARS in a lab, the SARS epidemic began in Asia (page 146). The likely culprit, according to the World Health Organization: an infected researcher at one of Beijing’s top labs. Similar SARS outbreaks were traced back to labs in Taiwan and Singapore.

3. Biodefense or public health? Germs like anthrax and Ebola are dangerous, no doubt. But  around the world, 5 million people die each year from tuberculosis, malaria, and AIDS. The most dangerous result of the biodefense expansion, King writes, might be the “distraction of attention from more serious problems” (page 421).

Swipe This Critique

King’s topic may be incredibly important, but the book reads like a rant. Outrage reigns, and nuance is lacking. With entire pages of snark and “scare quotes,” King makes it difficult to get into the book if you’re not already convinced that the “poor misunderstood biodefense complex” is a scourge (page 56). The sarcasm’s not subtle, either. One section is titled “Trust the Government, Not: The Spin,” (page 108). And while he tries to stay out of conspiracy territory, King comes awfully close. He’s dismissive of any argument for biodefense research, which he calls “bioboodle.” As the author puts it, those who support the new labs lie, “crow,” and offer the government “fawning, simpering, yassuhs and nosuhs,” (pages 340 and 243). Wait—“yassuhs and nosuhs”?


The constant sarcasm is exhausting to read, and the book seems to ramble over its 453 pages. A few pages seem to be filled with King’s raw notes. Talk about a notebook dump.

With 15 chapters mixed with 20 shorter sections on King’s personal experiences, a final postscript, and an epilogue, it’s hard to find any organized path through the book.

Bottom Line:
King’s message is important, but his tone—fuming and suspicious—works only when you’re preaching to the choir.