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Scientists' deaths are under the microscope


By ALANNA MITCHELL, SIMON COOPER AND CAROLYN ABRAHAM
COMPILED BY ALANNA MITCHELL




It's a tale only the best conspiracy theorist could dream up.

Eleven microbiologists mysteriously dead over the span of just five months. Some of them world leaders in developing weapons-grade biological plagues. Others the best in figuring out how to stop millions from dying because of biological weapons. Still others, experts in the theory of bioterrorism.

Throw in a few Russian defectors, a few nervy U.S. biotech companies, a deranged assassin or two, a bit of Elvis, a couple of Satanists, a subtle hint of espionage, a big whack of imagination, and the plot is complete, if a bit reminiscent of James Bond.

The first three died in the space of just over a week in November. Benito Que, 52, was an expert in infectious diseases and cellular biology at the Miami Medical School. Police originally suspected that he had been beaten on Nov. 12 in a carjacking in the medical school's parking lot. Strangely enough, though, his body showed no signs of a beating. Doctors then began to suspect a stroke.

Just four days after Dr. Que fell unconscious came the mysterious disappearance of Don Wiley, 57, one of the foremost microbiologists in the United States. Dr. Wiley, of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at Harvard University, was an expert on how the immune system responds to viral attacks such as the classic doomsday plagues of HIV, ebola and influenza.

He had just bought tickets to take his son to Graceland the following day. Police found his rental car on a bridge outside Memphis, Tenn. His body was later found in the Mississippi River. Forensic experts said he may have had a dizzy spell and have fallen off the bridge.

Just five days after that, the world-class microbiologist and high-profile Russian defector Valdimir Pasechnik, 64, fell dead. The pathologist who did the autopsy, and who also happened to be associated with Britain's spy agency, concluded he died of a stroke.

Dr. Pasechnik, who defected to the United Kingdom in 1989, played a huge role in Russian biowarfare and helped to figure out how to modify cruise missiles to deliver the agents of mass biological destruction.

The next two deaths came four days apart in December. Robert Schwartz, 57, was stabbed and slashed with what police believe was a sword in his farmhouse in Leesberg, Va. His daughter, who identifies herself as a pagan high priestess, and several of her fellow pagans have been charged.

Dr. Schwartz was an expert in DNA sequencing and pathogenic micro-organisms, who worked at the Center for Innovative Technology in Herndon, Va.

Four days later, Nguyen Van Set, 44, died at work in Geelong, Australia, in a laboratory accident. He entered an airlocked storage lab and died from exposure to nitrogen. Other scientists at the animal diseases facility of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization had just come to fame for discovering a virulent strain of mousepox, which could be modified to affect smallpox.

Then in February, the Russian microbiologist Victor Korshunov, 56, an expert in intestinal bacteria of children around the world, was bashed over the head near his home in Moscow. Five days later the British microbiologist Ian Langford, 40, was found dead in his home near Norwich, England, naked from the waist down and wedged under a chair. He was an expert in environmental risks and disease.

Two weeks later, two prominent microbiologists died in San Francisco. Tanya Holzmayer, 46, a Russian who moved to the U.S. in 1989, focused on the part of the human molecular structure that could be affected best by medicine.

She was killed by fellow microbiologist Guyang (Matthew) Huang, 38, who shot her seven times when she opened the door to a pizza delivery. Then he shot himself.

The final two deaths came one day after the other in March. David Wynn-Williams, 55, a respected astrobiologist with the British Antarctic Survey, who studied the habits of microbes that might survive in outer space, died in a freak road accident near his home in Cambridge, England. He was hit by a car while he was jogging.

The following day, Steven Mostow, 63, known as Dr. Flu for his expertise in treating influenza, and a noted expert in bioterrorism, died when the airplane he was piloting crashed near Denver.

So what does any of it mean?

"Statistically, what are the chances?" wondered a prominent North American microbiologist reached last night at an international meeting of infectious-disease specialists in Chicago.

Janet Shoemaker, director of public and scientific affairs of the American Society for Microbiology in Washington, D.C., pointed out yesterday that there are about 20,000 academic researchers in microbiology in the U.S. Still, not all of these are of the elevated calibre of those recently deceased.

She had a chilling, final thought. When microbiologists die in a lab, there's a way of taking note of the deaths and adding them up. When they die in freakish accidents outside the lab, nobody keeps track.


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