Education

Biological warfare? Welcome to his life

Jerry Jaax holds biological samples at the Kansas State University veterinarian school in Manhattan in this 2001 photo.
Jerry Jaax holds biological samples at the Kansas State University veterinarian school in Manhattan in this 2001 photo. Wichita Eagle archive

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in The Wichita Eagle on Oct. 28, 2001.

While federal officials are scouring the country, trying to discover the source of the anthrax that has killed three people and panicked the entire nation, Jerry Jaax, a former Army bioweapons expert, is pondering the worst terrorist attack likely in Kansas.

While in the Army, Jaax - a Wichita-area native and now associate vice provost for research compliance at Kansas State University - worked with diseases far more deadly than anthrax.

He led the first major biohazard mission the world had seen before this month. He visited Siberia to witness illegal weapons factories that produced smallpox and the plague. He has seen firsthand the lax security of those factories and the poverty and desperation of scientists who know how to make biological weapons that could kill millions in a stealth attack.

He has learned things that would keep most of us awake at night.

The scenario Jaax envisions for Kansas isn’t necessarily the stuff of spy books, although his experiences while in the Army were detailed in a 1995 best-selling book, “The Hot Zone.”

Nor is it the stuff of movies, although Dustin Hoffman played him in “Outbreak,” a fictitious movie loosely based on the book.

Jaax’s scenario goes something like this: Someone infects western Kansas feedlots with mad cow disease.

That may not sound terrifying, unless you are the rancher who owns the cattle, or someone with a fondness for hamburgers, which if made from infected cattle could spread a disease that kills its victims by tearing holes in their brain tissue.

No vaccine exists to protect cattle from mad cow disease. Those cattle can’t go to market.

In the world of terrorism, that is known as ecoterrorism, rather than anti-personnel terrorism.

Jaax spent his Army career protecting people.

Now, as part of his job at K-State, he wants to protect the economy.

Agroterrorism

In 1998, he returned home to Kansas and became the university veterinarian and the person who makes sure experiments on people and animals are conducted legally and ethically.

For two years, Jon Wefald, the university president, has warned of the vulnerability of agriculture to attacks. He is proposing to build a $40 million biosafety research center to develop vaccines and diagnostic tests that could save crops, cattle, the economy and, possibly, lives.

To develop vaccines, tests and cures, the university needs to be a laboratory where researchers could safely work with infectious diseases for animals and plants.

Jaax and other university researchers outline their worst-case scenarios to agricultural groups, the Kansas Legislature and Congress.

The message is getting through. A recent bill introduced by Sen. Pat Roberts, a Rrepublican from western Kansas, would provide $3.5 billion over 10 years to combat agroterrorism.

Although none of the money in the bill is earmarked for K-State, Roberts has said he expects that the university would have a strong chance of receiving some research grants.

Jaax says there is no doubt that countries have the capability to attack food supplies.

“We developed agricultural biological weapons prior to quitting our program,” he said. “Britain did extensive anti-crop research. The USSR had big capabilities for producing plant and animal pathogens. And Iraq worked with wheat pathogens and camel pox.”

Jaax, 55, has snowy white hair, a handsome face with sharp features and an erect posture from 26 years in the military. He headed the biological weapon treaty compliance office at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, where much of the current anthrax research is under way.

When he used to talk about the possibility of a biological weapons attack, civilians would respond, “ ‘Yeah, but are there really people out there that would use smallpox? Are there really people out there that would use anthrax to kill a million people?’ “ Jaax recalled.

Now that everyone is terrified, he emphasizes that the risks are small but real enough that the nation needs to step up its research to be adequately prepared.

“The problem is that when you talk to people about this, you scare the bejeezus out of them,” he said. “You have to walk a fine line when you are talking about this stuff. You know, ‘We will all be killed; don’t panic.’ “

Growing up

Jaax, one of four children, grew up on a wheat farm near Conway Springs. His dad, Alfred, worked at Boeing and farmed. His mom, Ada, who now lives in Wichita, taught high school English in Goddard and Mulvane.

After graduating from high school in 1964, he headed to the University of Kansas to be a basketball star.

The first year was a reality check. He couldn’t study and play ball, and he admitted to himself he would never go pro.

During his junior year, he transferred to K-State and studied veterinary medicine, thinking he would grow up to be like his older brother, Don, a veterinarian in Andale.

Like Don, he envisioned developing deep social roots in a single community, practicing out of the back of a pickup, answering to no one and being a doctor to everyone.

At the university, he met and married Nancy, a Wichita native.

When he graduated from K-State in 1972, during the Vietnam war, few veterinary jobs were available. With no money to set up a practice, he joined the Army.

When Nancy received her degree in veterinary medicine a year later, she also enlisted, becoming the second woman ever in the Army Veterinary Corps, taking care of the Army’s dogs, cows and horses.

They were stationed in Europe, where their two children were born. They were preparing to return to the United States and civilian life when the Army offered to pay for post-graduate work if they transferred to Fort Detrick, Md., home to the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases.

It was there that the couple became the most famous veterinarians in the country.

Hunting bioterrorism

The institute researches ways to protect military personnel from biological and chemical attacks.

Jerry Jaax went into administration, studying laboratory animal medicine. He was promoted to colonel, was head of the Army’s veterinary division at the institute and later headed the biological weapons treaty compliance office.

Nancy Jaax studied pathology, also working her way to the rank of colonel. She became the institute’s chief of pathology.

Because her body couldn’t tolerate the vaccinations required to work with agents like anthrax and smallpox, she volunteered to work in the hot zone, where the most deadly agents for which there are no vaccines and no treatments are kept.

On Oct. 4, 1989, Hazelton Research Products - a one -story warehouse about 10 minutes from Washington - accepted a shipment of 100 wild monkeys from the Philippines.

A month later, 29 were dead, infected with ebola, a virus with the infectio usness of influenza and the mortality rate of the black plague.

Until the time the monkeys arrived in the United States, nine out of every 10 people infected with ebola died.

Nancy Jaax was a key member of the team that identified and studied the virus, which turned out to be a new strain that was not deadly to humans.

She cautions, however, that this virus could someday be harmful to humans because the virus mutates.

Jerry Jaax, who had experience working with monkeys, led the team that contained the virus and destroyed the monkeys in a week-long secret operation.

In “The Hot Zone,” author Richard Preston makes it into a terrifying ordeal.

“It wasn’t all that scary,” Jaax said. “It was really exciting. While it was happening you knew it was a big deal. You knew there weren’t a handful of people in the world that had an opportunity to do what you were doing.”

At the same time, he jokes that during this mission his hair turned white.

In 1992, Jerry Jaax came to suspect that the monkeys may have been intentionally infected.

That year, a Russian scientist defected and told the United States that his country had broken the 1969 treaty prohibiting production of biological weapons.

Russia had 60,000 people experimenting with ebola, making weapons-grade anthrax and producing tons of smallpox virus.

“This was a bit of a revelation to me,” Jaax said. “He told us they were going to load these biological agents, as many as 10 agents in a warhead, and overlay these in the populated areas of the United States. With multiple agents, even if you did have counter-agents, it wouldn’t matter because you wouldn’t have something against all of them.”

In the mid-’90s, he was part of a team of scientists and military personnel that visited the weapons plants, offering money to the Russians if they would convert them to factories for making aspirin instead of the plague.

He is still haunted by the poverty he saw. Some of the world’s top scientists were making only $15 to $18 a month.

“These scientists were just desperate,” he said. “A lot of them are starving to death. These are guys that know how to do this stuff. “That is why we are so worried about biological weapons. For every 10 people who would have a moral reason for not doing it, you are going to have one that says, ‘Hey, I hate the . . . Americans anyway, and I need the money.’ “

Out of the spotlight

Jaax has mixed emotions about being in Manhattan, Kan., while so much is happening on the East Coast.

He loves his job but misses the excitement at the Army research institute, where Nancy is still stationed. When she gets out of the Army next month, she will move to Manhattan and plans to work at K-State.

Jaax says he is an optimist.

He thinks a large-scale biological attack won’t happen, just as he thinks that we need to prepare in case it does.

“I’ve talked to those guys, and I have seen some of the intelligence about what they were doing and how dangerous some of these agents are,” he said.

“But I sleep good.”

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