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Last Updated

05 Mar 2003

Source: Washington Post, March 5, 2003

'Dream Team' of Scientists Prepares for Worst

Group Focuses on Emergency Response

By Ceci Connolly, Washington Post Staff Writer

Long before there was Code Orange, the renewal of smallpox inoculations or a presidentially decreed war on terror, Jerome Hauer and a handful of counterterrorism experts were painting doomsday scenarios.

"People would look at us like we were crazy," recalled Hauer, 52, who helped create New York City's emergency management office. "They'd look at us like we were hysterical fanatics screaming the sky was falling."

Now Hauer and his hand-picked team at the Department of Health and Human Services are paid to think bleak thoughts. And if it were not for the serious nature of their work, they might just be saying, "We told you so."

For years, this disparate group spread across the military, academia and the FBI has tried to sound the alarm. Members have the journal articles and congressional testimony to prove it.

But it wasn't until fall 2001 -- when al Qaeda and anthrax made domestic terrorism a reality -- that HHS devoted major resources to the threat of biological, chemical and nuclear attacks.

"It became apparent we were totally unprepared," said D.A. Henderson, the epidemiologist who arrived at the department a few weeks after the first anthrax death in Florida. First alone, and then joined by Hauer, Henderson started assembling what has evolved into a new Office of Public Health Emergency Preparedness. The office, which comprises what HHS Secretary Tommy G. Thompson describes as a "dream team of scientists," was established to oversee emergency response and long-range planning for protecting the civilian population from acts of terrorism, particularly biological and chemical attack.

Last summer, Henderson moved to an advisory role, and Hauer became acting assistant secretary of the office, overseeing a staff of 51. Hauer had also been responsible for the 105-person Office of Emergency Response, which moved to the new Department of Homeland Security on March 1.

"We've all had a level of commitment to this for a long time," said Robert Blitzer, 57, a vice president of Science Applications International Corp. who is consulting with HHS. "This is the first time we're in a work environment together."

Other HHS agencies play large roles in the anti-terrorism effort; the National Institutes of Health is mounting a massive research effort while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is coordinating response activities with state and local health departments. Hauer's team has a more futuristic feel to it.

In a windowless warren kept locked at all times, the group pores over intelligence data, constantly re-ranking its threat list and possible countermeasures -- the detection systems, antidotes, vaccines and treatments of the future. Smallpox was at the top of the list because, as Henderson said, there is no treatment, and it can be fairly easily spread.

"Right behind is anthrax," he said, "because of its availability and the fact it has been used."

It is a reunion of sorts for the group of men (there are no women on the core team) and a new perspective for a department that historically had little connection to the world of national security. Henderson, 75, and Philip Russell, 71, an Army major general, came out of retirement to join the team. Medical doctors with extensive expertise in infectious diseases, both men focus on development of new treatments and vaccines.

Though the two are pleased with the speedy production of 200 million doses of smallpox vaccine and last week's announcement of three contracts to develop a safer, second-generation vaccine, there are many other deadly agents on their "to do" list.

"Soon we'll be pushing on with products for tularemia and Ebola," said Russell, who received the Legion of Merit and Distinguished Service Medal during his more than 31 years of active duty in the military. "We're also worried about people engineering new organisms."

Edward Eitzen, former commander of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Md., said he came to HHS for the chance to work with Henderson and Russell -- "giants in their field."

A highly decorated doctor who served in Operation Desert Storm, Eitzen, 49, is devoting much of his time to managing a botulism vaccine project. He scans the research horizon for other government, academic or corporate research that might apply to terrorism agents and coordinates with the Food and Drug Administration to smooth the licensing process.

The physicians rely heavily on Blitzer's reading of intelligence data, a skill he honed in the FBI's International Terrorism Operations Section.

"I look for trends in the traffic, any pattern of activity," Blitzer said. The information he culls on an enemy's ability to produce a certain weapon of mass destruction helps the group develop a counterstrategy.

A few years ago, terrorism experts focused on chemical weapons such as sarin gas or the nerve agent VX, Hauer said. But those can be difficult to disseminate in a civilian environment, as opposed to a battlefield. "Now the greater threats are toxic industrial materials that travel the highways every day," Hauer said.

Though not a government employee, Blitzer provides a critical link to law enforcement and intelligence officials, many of whom he knows. "If we see something in the traffic, I make a call to the CIA or FBI," he said.

The personal relationships, built over decades, mean the group often circumvents governmental obstacles, Hauer said, noting, "This is a group of people that abhors bureaucracy."