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U.S. News
Samuel Watson: Bioterrorism Expert

Wednesday, September 11, 2002

By Byron Spice, Post-Gazette Science Editor

Samuel J. Watson was in a doctor's office in Arlington, Va., when he heard an airplane coming in low and fast, followed by an explosion from the direction of the Pentagon.

But as lasting as his sonic memory of Sept. 11 may be, Oct. 5 is the date that has reverberated the longest and loudest for Watson.

That's the day 63-year-old Robert Stevens died in Florida of inhalation anthrax.

Until then, the public knew little about anthrax, much less its different ways of infecting people. But Watson, an expert on national security and bioterrorism, had argued for years that biological attacks were not only possible, but probable. Since joining the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health two years earlier, he had worked to convince his colleagues that the subject demanded study.

"There was interest, but it wasn't a deep and abiding interest," recalled Watson, a retired U.S. Army colonel and an associate professor of public health policy. The medical school and public health school deans were early supporters, but funding sources for bioterrorism research were few.

That changed rapidly last fall.

The Biomedical Security Institute, a joint effort of Pitt and Carnegie Mellon University that Watson had launched, became a center of attention. President Bush came in February to marvel at the computer system the institute is developing to detect biological attacks based on activity in area emergency rooms.

The number of researchers studying aspects of bioterrorism, or "biodefense" as Watson prefers to call it, has expanded rapidly as the National Institutes of Health and other agencies provided money.

"Now, graduate students are working on these problems," Watson said. His class on biodefense this spring attracted 25 students, a number that would have been surprising a year earlier. "I suspect when I teach it next spring I'll have even more."

Watson, who served in the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam, was deputy national security adviser to Vice President George Bush in the mid-1980s. He was in the news during the Iran-Contra investigations when he was questioned about meetings with figures implicated in secret efforts to resupply the Contra guerrillas in Nicaragua.

His interest in bioterrorism flowered after he left government and joined a small Washington, D.C., firm that specialized in "tabletop simulations" of the decision-making process leaders might follow in response to a biological attack.

Since joining the Pitt faculty three years ago, Watson has commuted from his home in the Washington area, where his wife, Wendy Fibison, is a molecular geneticist at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Having established the Biomedical Security Institute here, Watson this year turned its leadership over to Dr. Michael Wagner, a Pitt expert in computerized medical information. But he's had more than enough to keep him busy since, serving as an adviser on biodefense to the governor and the state Department of Health, as well as to the UPMC Health System and to a working group of 19 local hospitals.

This grassroots work is at the very heart of biodefense, he said.

"Just as all politics is local, all preparation is local."

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