The Very Mysterious Deaths Of Five Microbiologists
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 unbeleivable episode of "The X Files". Except the facts surrounding this story are just that. Facts. The Truth. Five emminent microbiologists, leaders in their particular field of scientific research, either dead or missing in the last eight weeks, and a bizzare 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 Novemeber 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 a mugging. 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 and murder.
"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 programme. 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 Organisation'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 realised 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 died."
Now for the intriguing part of this story. On Friday, November 2nd, the Washington Post reported:
"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.