Henderson steps down from U.S. bioterror post

Ex-Hopkins heath expert cites progress on vaccines

May 07, 2002|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

Dr. Donald A. Henderson, who left the Johns Hopkins University last fall to head a new bioterrorism program at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, stepped down yesterday, saying he was pleased with progress made in building vaccine supplies and other defenses against future attacks.

But he said he was disturbed that the perpetrator of the anthrax mailings that killed five people - and led to creation of the new Office of Public Health Preparedness - has not been identified.

"I'm really disappointed we haven't found out who did it," Henderson said in an interview. "It leaves a big question mark ... and it's very disturbing."

Henderson, 73, was replaced as director of the Office of Public Health Preparedness by Jerome M. Hauer, 50, who studied at the Hopkins School of Public Health when Henderson was dean and has been one of his deputies at HHS. Hauer is credited with creating the country's first bioterrorism response plan while serving as New York City's chief of emergency management under former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.

Henderson said he had agreed with Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson that he would serve about six months in the new job, which he started Nov. 1. Thompson summoned him to Washington the Sunday after Sept. 11, and he soon became the secretary's top bioterrorism adviser.

He will remain on board as Thompson's "principal science adviser," commuting about four days a week from his home in Baltimore, and will serve as chairman of a new federal advisory committee on bioterror preparedness, he said.

Best known for leading the successful campaign of the World Health Organization to eradicate smallpox in the 1970s, Henderson in the 1990s became one of the loudest voices in the scientific community warning against the danger of biological terrorism. In 1998, he founded the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies, now called the Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies.

At HHS, Henderson helped guide a large increase in federal funding to prepare defenses against bioterror, including $1 billion that is being distributed to states so they can build their own programs.

He pushed for rapid government acquisition of smallpox vaccine to have millions of doses on hand in case a terrorist uses the deadly virus against the United States. He said he is pleased with the speed with which smallpox vaccine has been tested and stockpiled, and with research toward an improved anthrax vaccine.

But the failure to solve the anthrax case is frustrating, Henderson said, particularly given the technical skill needed to produce so fine-grained and dangerous a powder.

"To produce this would take some practice and some work," he said. "You figure there's more of it out there somewhere."

He said the deaths from inhalation anthrax of two women in New York and Connecticut with no known direct exposure to the terrorists' letters is particularly alarming because it calls into question conventional thinking about how hard the disease is to contract.

Henderson's position in favor of destroying the known supplies of smallpox virus in Russia and the United States placed him at odds with the White House, which wants to keep the virus for research. But he said that played no role in his decision to step down.

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