You’re at church on a Sunday shortly after 9/11 and a colleague pages for a consult about a case of anthrax. It’s later linked to one of several anonymous letters laced with anthrax spores sent to media outlets and politicians.
Or your boss calls you at 2:30 a.m. and asks you to start packing up 100 doses of an antitoxin — no, make that 250 doses — for botulism bacteria, in response to what turns out to be a false alarm.
Neither scenario is most Americans’ idea of a likely day at work. But it was for Dr. Mark Kortepeter, a biodefense expert and now professor of epidemiology with the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s College of Public Health.
Kortepeter, a retired Army colonel, spent 7½ years in leadership positions at the U.S. Army Medical Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Maryland.
Known as USAMRIID (pronounced you-SAM-rid) and nicknamed the “Hot Zone” after Richard Preston’s best-selling novel by that name, the institute is the Defense Department’s lead laboratory for medical-biological defense research.
Now Kortepeter has published a memoir, styled as a medical thriller. “Inside the Hot Zone” is intended to take readers behind the scenes and into the laboratories where scientists study defenses against threats such as weaponized smallpox, botulism and Ebola.
“I felt that a lot of people had written about USAMRIID,” he said. “I thought it was time for someone who had actually lived the experiences to write about them.”
The formal launch date is Jan. 1, but the book is available through publisher Potomac Books, an imprint of the University of Nebraska Press, as well as Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
Kortepeter said he also thought the book would make for a fun read. It’s written to appeal to both scientists and nonscientists. He plans to incorporate one analogy from the book in his lectures. In it, he likens biological threats such as anthrax and Ebola to chess pieces in order to explain their potential roles as bioweapons.
He said he tried to show what was going on in the background of events that were in the news, such as the anthrax terror letters sent in fall 2001, as people worked to find solutions.
“I really thought it was an opportunity to shed some light on USAMRIID’s importance to national defense and (on) some of the people working there,” he said. “Really, it’s not so simple to do,” he said of the work.
He said he also thought the book might be inspirational for young scientists.
Kortepeter joined UNMC after leaving the army in early 2016. But he’d met experts there years before, around the time that UNMC, the clinical partner Nebraska Medicine, and the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services were building the Nebraska Biocontainment Unit.
Designed as a place to care for people affected by dangerous and highly contagious diseases, the unit was similar to one at USAMRIID. The Nebraska unit housed several patients infected with Ebola during the 2014-16 outbreak in West Africa.
“It seemed like a natural evolution for me because it allowed me to continue the work I’d been doing in high-threat agents” and isolation units, he said.
Most of his work now is with the National Ebola Training and Education Center, a collaboration among UNMC and the two other health centers that cared for Ebola patients during the West Africa outbreak. The three were tapped to share their expertise in preparing for and managing such threats with hospitals and health care workers across the country.
Kortepeter, who’s based in Washington, D.C., is the director for one division within NETEC. The Special Pathogens Research Network includes 10 regional treatment centers throughout the United States that are prepared to launch research quickly in the event of an epidemic while caring for patients with highly hazardous infectious diseases.
Preparedness continues to be important, he said. Knowing which experts are out there to collaborate with is half the battle.
“We don’t really know what’s coming around the corner as much as we like to think we do,” he said. “It’s always going to be something a little different than we expect.”
As for Richard Preston, Kortepeter has known the author for years. The two met while watching a football game at their sons’ school.
Kortepeter now is rewriting his first novel, “Biohazard 9-1-1,” about a doctor in a small town who finds himself in a race against time to stop an outbreak before it becomes a worldwide disaster.