December 20, 2001
It is a story worthy of a major conspiracy theory, the script for a Mel
Gibson "Who dunnit?" action movie, or a blueprint for a contrived and
unbelievable episode of "The X Files".
Except the facts surrounding this story are just
that. Facts. The Truth.
Five eminent microbiologists, leaders in their
particular field of scientific research, either dead or missing in the last
eight weeks, and a bizarre connection between one of the dead scientists and
the mystery surrounding the death by Anthrax inhalation of a sixty
one year old female hospital worker in New York.
Sounds far fetched? Read on...
Over the past few weeks several world-acclaimed scientific researchers
specializing in infectious diseases and biological agents such as Anthrax,
as well as DNA sequencing, have been found dead or have gone missing.
First, on November 12th, was Dr. Benito Que, a cell biologist working
on infectious diseases like HIV, who was found dead outside his laboratory
at the Miami Medical School. Police say his death was possibly the result of
The Miami Herald reported that:
"The incident, whatever it may have been,
occurred on Monday afternoon as the scientist left his job at University
of Miami's School of Medicine. He headed for his car, a white Ford
Explorer parked on Northwest 10th Avenue. The word among his friends is
that four men armed with a baseball bat attacked him at his car."
On November 16th, within of week of Dr. Que's
assault, Dr. Don C Wiley, one of the United States foremost
infectious disease researchers was declared missing.
Bill Poovey, a journalist with
Associated Press wrote:
"His rental car was found with a full tank
of petrol and the keys in the ignition. His disappearance looked like a
suicide, but according to colleagues and Dr. Wiley's family, the Harvard
Scientist associated with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute would
NEVER commit suicide.
Associates who attended the St. Jude's
Children Research Advisory Dinner with Dr. Wiley, just hours before he
disappeared, said that he was in good spirits and NOT depressed.
He was last seen at the banquet at the
Peabody Hotel in downtown Memphis the night he vanished. Those who saw
him last say he showed no signs of a man contemplating his own death."
Wiley left the hotel around midnight. The bridge
where his car was found is only a five-minute drive away and in the wrong
direction from where he was staying, leaving authorities with a four-hour,
unexplained gap until his vehicle was found.
Now Memphis police are exploring several theories involving suicide, robbery
"We began this investigation as a missing
person investigation," said Walter Crews of the Memphis Police
Department. "From there it went to a more criminal bent."
Dr. Wiley was an expert on how the human immune
system fights off infections and had recently investigated such dangerous
viruses as AIDS, Ebola, herpes and influenza.
From the United States, the story moves to England.
On November 23rd, Dr. Vladimir Pasechnik,
a former microbiologist for Biopreparat, the Soviet biological-weapons
production facility was found dead.
The Times was the only newspaper to provide an
obituary for Dr. Pasechnik, and said:
"The defection to Britain in 1989 of
Vladimir Pasechnik revealed to the West for the first time the colossal
scale of the Soviet Union's clandestine biological warfare program. His
revelations about the scale of the Soviet Union's production of such
biological agents as anthrax, plague, tularaemia and smallpox provided
an inside account of one of the best kept secrets of the Cold War.
After his defection he worked for ten years
at the U.K. Department of Health's Centre for Applied Microbiology
Research before forming his own company, Regma Biotechnics, to work on
therapies for cancer, neurological diseases, tuberculosis and other
infectious diseases. In the last few weeks of his life he had put his
research on anthrax at the disposal of the Government, in the light of
the threat from bioterrorism."
Back to the United States, and on December 10th,
Dr. Robert M. Schwartz was found murdered in Leesberg, Virginia. Dr.
Schwartz was a well-known DNA sequencing researcher. He founded the Virginia
Biotechnology Association where he worked on DNA sequencing for 15 years.
On Wednesday, December 12th the Washington Post reported:
"A well-known biophysicist, who was one of
the leading researchers on DNA sequencing analysis, was found slain in
his rural Loudoun County home after co-workers became concerned when he
didn't arrive at work as expected.
Robert M. Schwartz, 57, a founding member of
the Virginia Biotechnology Association, was found dead in the secluded
fieldstone farmhouse southwest of Leesburg where he lived alone. Loudoun
sheriff's officials said it appeared that Schwartz had been stabbed."
And so to Victoria State, Australia, where, on
December 14th, a skilled microbiologist was killed at the Commonwealth
Scientific and Industrial Research Organization's animal diseases facility
in Geelong, Australia.
This is the same facility that, as the journal
Nature announced in January this year:
"Australian scientists, Dr Ron Jackson
and Dr Ian Ramshaw, accidentally created an astonishingly
virulent strain of mousepox, a cousin of smallpox, among laboratory
mice. They realized that if similar genetic manipulation was carried out
on smallpox, an unstoppable killer could be unleashed."
The microbiologist who died had worked for 15
years at the facility. His name was Set Van Nguyen.
Victoria Police said:
"Set Van Nguyen, 44, appeared to have died
after entering an airlock into a storage laboratory filled with
nitrogen. His body was found when his wife became worried after he
failed to return from work.
He was killed after entering a low
temperature storage area where biological samples were kept. He did not
know the room was full of deadly gas which had leaked from a liquid
nitrogen cooling system. Unable to breathe, Mr. Nguyen collapsed and
Now for the intriguing part of this story.
On Friday, November 2nd, the Washington Post
"Officials are now scrambling to determine
how a quiet, 61-year-old Vietnamese immigrant, riding the subway each
day to and from her job in a hospital stockroom, was exposed to the
deadly anthrax spores that killed her this week.
They worry because there is no obvious
connection to the factors common to earlier anthrax exposures and
deaths: no clear link to the mail or to the media."
The name of this quiet 61 year old hospital
worker was Kathy Nguyen.