The nation's first center for biodefense studies is leaving its home at Johns Hopkins University. In a major coup, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) has convinced the 20-person staff of the Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies, the academic home of smallpox veteran Donald Henderson, to join its ranks. The move, which came as a surprise to many in the field, was announced in Pittsburgh today.
“My reaction is: Wow.” says C. J. Peters, director of the Center for Biodefense at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. “They're a pretty formidable team. I'm surprised Johns Hopkins is letting them get away.”
Co-founded in 1998 by Henderson, who led the World Health Organization's successful smallpox eradication campaign in the 1960s and 1970s, the Hopkins center started calling attention to the threat of bioterrorism years before it before it rose to the top of the national agenda. "Dark Winter," a simulated smallpox attack in three American cities organized by the center in 2001, helped open many politicians' eyes to how woefully unprepared the nation was to deal with such an attack. Center researchers also co-authored a series of influential papers on how to prevent and treat the diseases most likely to be unleashed by terrorists, and started a peer-reviewed journal.
Henderson and his colleagues had occasionally squabbled with Johns Hopkins about funding levels, says one biodefense expert who asked not to be named; at the new Center for Biosecurity, UPMC is offering the team $12 million for the next 5 years, as well as ample space. But the main reason for the switch is that UPMC administers an exceptionally well integrated system of 20 hospitals that will be an ideal testing ground for new bioterrorism preparedness strategies, says center director Tara O'Toole. And as an added bonus, the researchers won't have to move: UPMC's new Center for Biosecurity will be headquartered in Baltimore, but will have offices in Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C.
O'Toole says the center had negotiated with UPMC in secret for months, but only last Friday told senior Hopkins officials about their plans. Alfred Sommer, dean of the Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, says he's “not too upset” about the transfer, but “surprised” by the center's desire to start organizing biodefense on the ground in addition to studying lofty national policy issues.