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Last Updated

22 Jun 2003

Source: Washington Post, June 22, 2003

New Graduate Program at GMU to Focus on Biodefense

By Michele Clock, Washington Post Staff Writer

During the Cold War, he helped transform anthrax, smallpox and Ebola into deadly weapons for the Soviet Union.

After defecting to the United States, he told his secrets to Congress and the CIA.

Now, he's using his knowledge to train a new generation of experts to defend society from the estimated 80 pathogens emerging and in existence worldwide today -- including some he helped create.

Starting in the fall, Ken Alibek, together with former rival Charles Bailey, former commander of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Fort Detrick, will lead a new graduate program in biodefense at George Mason University's Prince William campus. University officials are touting the program as the first of its kind in the world.

The program will operate out of GMU's newly renamed National Center for Biodefense, which was established in February 2002. At that time, GMU named Alibek and Bailey co-directors of the center, and each began teaching courses and workshops in biodefense. Previously, students would study microbiology, for example, and take a biodefense class or two. George Mason's graduate program is the first of its kind to offer a degree in the subject.

It will cost the university an estimated $1 million to get the program running by fall, said Larry Czarda, vice president of operations for GMU's Prince William campus. School officials said they expect to welcome as many as 85 master's, doctorate and certificate-bound students at that time.

"This is ambitious, but we know how to do this," Alibek said. "We understand this is absolutely essential work because for the first time, we understand the biological weapons threat. We understand it's a very grim threat."

GMU President Alan G. Merten said the program fits into the university's long-term goal of boosting its science offerings. University officials said they hope the program will help enhance GMU's reputation as a leader in biosciences and public policy.

The graduate program also gives the university greater access to federal funding, Merten said. Earlier this year, the center received a $1.4 million grant from the Department of Defense to support its research on non-vaccine-based approaches to fighting pathogens. Officials said the center has received grants from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency of the Department of Defense and the National Institutes of Health as well. More is likely on the way, Merten said.

"We're having a lot of good discussions with federal government and the corporate sector," he said.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the anthrax attacks of the following months, education experts said that many universities across the nation have incorporated biodefense-related material into their curriculums.

Because it is the first university to develop an academic program of this kind, GMU is unique, said David Heyman, a senior fellow and director of science and security initiatives at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies. "But ... a lot of other universities are starting up things like this. You will see more and more of these programs. Part of it is there is an academic need, and part of it is there's money out there."

Although there are other biodefense centers at American universities, most focus on research, not on academics, said Vikas Chandhoke, the center's director of general administration. Most also focus on either the public policy or the medical side of the issue, not both, he said.

GMU students will learn to analyze the threats posed by biological weapons, and each will focus on one of four subspecialties: medical defense, engineering defense and countermeasures, nonproliferation, and counterterrorism and law enforcement.

"It's our idea to [give] these people ... absolutely in-depth knowledge of this field," Alibek said. "We don't want these people to have tunnel vision," he said.

Alibek and other officials said they believe that ultimately, this crop of experts will make society safer.

"The ultimate objective of any defensive work, especially in the field of biological terrorism, is to save as many possible lives," Alibek said. "That's why this program is focused on preparing a new generation of highly proficient biodefense experts who would be able to research new directions ... and new methodologies for treatment of various infections... . You have no well-prepared people if you don't have well-prepared experts."