In a sign of their growing search for outside experts to combat the unfamiliar foe of bioterrorism, Bush administration officials on Thursday named a leading smallpox researcher to head a new office charged with preparing for biological attacks.
The appointment of Dr. D.A. Henderson, who led the worldwide effort to eradicate smallpox and in recent years warned of the virus' threat as a biological weapon, was made after the administration was criticized for being slow to enlist expert advice in coping with the anthrax letter attacks.
Several anthrax researchers said they have had little contact with investigators. That's puzzling to some scientists, especially because federal officials have admitted that they had only a handful of anthrax experts when the outbreak began.
J. Craig Venter, whose team at Celera Genomics Corp. in Rockville, Md., has decoded virtually all of the anthrax bacterium's genetic content, said his offers of technical assistance went largely ignored at the Department of Health and Human Services until the last two weeks.
Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said Thursday that the addition of Henderson, who began informally advising the administration soon after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, had created "a scientific dream team."
Henderson, 73, will lead the new Office of Public Health Preparedness, created to coordinate the bioterrorism efforts of federal health agencies and oversee strengthening of the nation's public health infrastructure.
The apparent slowness of Health and Human Services officials to accept outside help frustrated Venter, whose researchers helped decode the human genome and possess one of the world's largest genome sequencing facilities.
"There hasn't been an obvious command and control structure," Venter said. "It wasn't clear to anybody who was in charge, if anybody was."
Other scientists said the federal teams seem to be learning quickly on their own, and outside meddling might actually harm the effort.
"I've kept out of their hair," said Martin Hugh-Jones, a Louisiana State University anthrax researcher who said he was consulted briefly in the first few days after inhalation anthrax struck in Florida.
Venter said his recent contacts with Health and Human Services officials suggest they are learning what the research community can contribute.
"I'm much more encouraged today than I was two weeks ago," Venter said.