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Last Updated

17 Sep 2003

Source: Baltimore Sun, September 17, 2003

Hopkins' biodefense staff departing

20 employees to create center for University of Pittsburgh Medical Center

By Scott Shane, Sun Staff

In a surprise move announced yesterday, the staff of the biodefense policy center at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health is leaving Hopkins to create a similar center for the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

But the University of Pittsburgh's new Center for Biosecurity will have its headquarters in Baltimore, as well as offices in Washington and Pittsburgh, said Dr. Tara O'Toole, director of Hopkins' Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies.

"We're taking everybody with us," O'Toole said of the 20-person staff.

O'Toole, 52, will become chief executive officer of the new University of Pittsburgh center, and her deputy, Dr. Thomas V. Inglesby, will be chief operating officer. Dr. Donald A. Henderson, former dean of the Hopkins public health school and founder of the Hopkins biodefense center, will become "special adviser" to the new center and professor of public health and medicine at the University of Pittsburgh, O'Toole said.

All three will remain in Baltimore, occupying downtown office space that is under negotiation, she said.

Henderson, 75, who led the World Health Organization's campaign to eradicate smallpox in the 1970s, was one of the first public health experts to sound the alarm about bioterrorism. He started the Hopkins biodefense center in 1998.

After the Sept. 11 attacks and the anthrax letters, Henderson left the center to become a top adviser to the Bush administration on biopreparedness.

Yesterday, a news release from the Hopkins School of Public Health noted the departure of Henderson and O'Toole but said the biodefense center is being merged, along with several other programs, into a new Institute for Global Health and Security. Its director has not been named.

Alfred Sommer, dean of the school of public health, said he hopes Henderson and O'Toole will collaborate with Hopkins colleagues. But he said the school has other experts on biological and chemical weapons and emerging diseases. They were "working on different parts of the elephant" and will now be joined in the new institute, he said.

"We've been talking for more than a year about getting greater synergy," Sommer said. "Much of what has to be done for defense against terrorism is exactly what needs to be done against natural diseases."

The new institute will incorporate several Hopkins programs, including the Center for Public Health Preparedness, the Mid-Atlantic Public Health Training Center and the Risk Sciences and Public Policy Institute.

It will include the 60 Hopkins staff members who have formed Scientists Working to Address Terrorism (SWAT), which has advised postal workers and health officials on anthrax treatments and smallpox vaccination.

The Institute for Global Health and Security will also oversee the public health school's participation in a $42 million, five-year research program in biodefense and emerging diseases being led by the University of Maryland School of Medicine, Sommer said.

O'Toole said the decision to switch universities was motivated by the unique status of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, which includes 20 hospitals and a health maintenance organization serving 500,000 people. "It has a near monopoly on health care in western Pennsylvania," she said.

That status will permit the new Center for Biosecurity to try out models for mass immunization, mass casualty care and other measures against the threat of germ warfare and emerging diseases, O'Toole said.

"We're frustrated with the pace of change in the country" in preparing for a possible attack, she said. "We think bioterrorism is a question of when, not if."