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Last Updated

18 Dec 2002

Source: Washington Post, February 14, 2002.

GMU Bioterrorism Center Unites Former Foes

By Amy Argetsinger, Washington Post Staff Writer

The first time scientists Ken Alibek and Charles Bailey met more than a decade ago, they were on opposite sides of the arms race. Alibek was working to develop biological weapons for the Soviet Union; Bailey was trying to develop defenses against such weapons for the U.S. Army.

Now they're on the same side. Yesterday, George Mason University announced it is creating a new research center to host the pair's work on an array of efforts to counter the spread of biological terrorism.

The Center for Biodefense, which will be based at GMU's Prince William County campus, will try to develop treatments for diseases such as anthrax and smallpox and study public health preparations for bioterrorist incidents.

"It is our vision that this center ... will ultimately lessen the threat of biological warfare and reduce the threat of biological agents," said GMU President Alan G. Merten.

The new center is GMU's latest step in a longtime effort to position itself as a leader in the region's biosciences and public policy circles.

It will be structured differently than most university-based research centers. Instead of creating a center from scratch, GMU will be joining forces with Alibek and Bailey's existing research firm, Hadron Advanced Biosystems Inc., which is already working under contract for the federal government.

Merten said the center will open at virtually no cost to the university, which is struggling under deep state budget cuts. The center will move into existing laboratory space and will be staffed by two other researchers already on GMU's faculty. Alibek and Bailey, who have been named Distinguished Professors at GMU, will not draw a salary except for semesters when they teach courses.

Alibek said yesterday that he and Bailey have spent their careers studying an issue that only lately has grabbed the world's attention, following last fall's anthrax attacks. The dangers of biological weapons have grown with the rise of terrorism, he said. "Now, the major idea [of terrorists] is to kill as many people as possible."

Both he and Bailey argued that researchers need to look for solutions beyond vaccines, which can take years to develop and distribute to an entire civilian population. Alibek said science needs to find a way to cure infections like smallpox and anthrax even in their late stages.

The two researchers met under unlikely circumstances in 1991, when a delegation of Soviet scientists visited the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Fort Detrick. The purpose of the tour was to prove to the Soviets that the U.S. was not developing offensive biological weapons, said Bailey, who later became the institute's commander.

Bailey said he tried to engage Alibek in conversation and was baffled why the Kazakhstani scientist wouldn't respond. Alibek, meanwhile, said he was suspicious of this American military man grinning so amiably at him.

Alibek gradually realized that Soviet intelligence was wrong -- that the United States was indeed working on only defensive weapons. About a year later, he defected to this country, where he eventually met Bailey again working for a defense contractor.

Merten said the new center will fill a different niche from other university-based centers, such as Johns Hopkins' Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies, drawing more on research based in information technology.

Though the center will be primarily occupied with research, it will eventually oversee the creation of a new graduate course in civilian biodefense that Alibek said would be one of the first in the nation.

"We need to create a new generation of scientists who will be able to work in civilian biodefense," he said.