the bug to study deadly viruses as a TCU student. Now this Army colonel
is one of the U.S. military's chief weapons against these unseen killers.
David Van Meter
'66 lives two lives. The first resides in Southern California, where wife
Judith Byrd '66 and their three cats await his return. In this life, Burnette
pursues his hobby as a pilot, having mostly left behind a career filled
with terms like retrovirology and recombinant DNA, although he still occasionally
consults with early-stage biomedical companies. He retired with a Nobel
nomination and enough stock options to make watching the market a full-time
was then that the 33-year Army reservist began his second life, shaken
out of sleep the morning of 9/11 like so many others. The 59-year-old
Army colonel was called to active duty two Novembers ago, at one year
too old to be promoted to general. Yet what he has done in the private
sector, and what he knows now, makes him unique in the invisible war against
On this May
evening, Burnette arrives home just before 7 o'clock. He holds a cell
phone to his ear; his work voice mailbox is full, so the cell phone number
seems to be the best bet to reach him. He steps out on the balcony of
his two-bedroom apartment and sees Arlington National Cemetery and Fort
Myer, the Pentagon is in the hazy distance.
an opportunity to get me in active duty," he said, his good humor present
throughout a two-hour conversation. "Here's this old colonel who has nothing
else productive to do, activated two days before I was to take command
of an Army Reserve general hospital in Los Angeles, where I would have
been treated like a god. Instead, I'm treated like a staff slug at the
job is a 24/7 tour of duty that will last at least another six months,
days spent, he explains modestly, "briefing congressional staffers, responding
to reporters and issuing papers." But amid those duties, he also performs
another function: To find, acquire and adapt research that can defend
the United States against the world's biological, chemical, nuclear and
The son of
an Air Force lieutenant colonel who served in both World War II and Korea,
Burnette moved from Japan to the Dallas area his junior year in high school.
A knee injury turned his talents from football to fine arts, on the advice
of his mother. A lead part in his first play, Antigone, led to
a theatre scholarship at TCU.
wife was a theatre major, too, and we met on the first day of classes,
both as freshmen, on the backstage of the Little Theatre," Burnette said,
adding that Judith also suggested that he study something besides theatre.
that was great advice. Burnette worked 48 hours a week as a surgical scrub
tech to make ends meet, earning degrees in biology and chemistry. A doctorate
at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine found him engrossed in the
study of retroviruses (the viruses that cause AIDS, for instance). While
there, he also was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army medical
received postdoctoral training in retrovirology at Albert Einstein College
of Medicine and accepted a position at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research
Center. There, he would invent a technique called "Western blotting,"
what he calls "a goofball idea" that gives scientists a tool to visualize
specific proteins in a virus or a cell. It has since become the confirmatory
test for AIDS, and Burnette received Nobel consideration for the discovery.
he left to work at the revered Salk Institute. Then came an offer to work
for an obscure four-person research company called Applied Molecular Genetics.
looking for young hotshots. I wasn't so young anymore, but I guess I was
a hotshot. They doubled my salary and offered me something called stock;
I really did not understand at the time what it was."
would become Amgen, arguably the world's most successful biotech company.
One of its scientific founders, Burnette headed its vaccines division.
He would produce one of the first hepatitis B vaccines, as well as better
vaccines for whooping cough and cholera.
By then one
of the nation's brightest microbiologists and molecular biologists, Burnette
left Amgen in 1992 a rich man.
when talking to Burnette about his current military assignment that the
need-to-know job description is that he spends most of his time fielding
questions from the press and Congress. Yet, at Fort Detrick before his
current assignment in Washington, D.C., he had developed an algorithm
for U.S.-led coalition forces. When entering Iraq, troops needed to know
two key things: the likelihood of acquiring various infectious diseases
in a given area, and the best countermeasures for such threats. Burnette
gave them a logical equation that could answer both questions with accuracy.
officer for chemical and biological defense, Burnette also contributes
heavily to the vaccines unit. Daily, his team works on new treatments
for anthrax, smallpox and botulinum toxin poisoning, as well as ways to
"clean up" existing vaccines and acquire advanced countermeasures for
nerve and mustard agents. Burnette's teams also develop new suits, masks,
detectors and skin protectants that can fend off a chemical or biological
had demonstrated the ability to use chemical weapons in their war against
Iran," he said, assessing the role that chemical and biological weapons
played in Iraq. "I am somewhat surprised they weren't used. There's no
doubt in my mind that they possessed chemical and biological weapons in
been unleashed, there would have been much greater casualties in the U.S.
and coalition forces."
the potential of such attacks was not realized, Burnette said it's only
a matter of time before it is, somewhere. Perhaps that is why, even though
President Bush has declared that major fighting in Iraq is over, Burnette's
work is not.
the vaccine work we're doing now began pre-9/11," Burnette said. "The
industry standard to create a new vaccine is around $500 million to $750
million; the Department of Defense spends maybe $100 million.
of the federal government are taxpayers; they are not quite as flush as
those who invest in biotech or other pharmaceutical companies who understand
the potential. ... So how do we do it?"
thinks the answer is to partner with private biotech companies, which
he knows a great deal about. Until next March, he will continue to search
for the next vaccine, at the best price possible, for the terrorist threats
he knows are out there.
Why? He deliberates
before replying. "Well, this is a young man's job, and I'm not young anymore,
and I'm not so smart anymore. But I like to play soldier, and I'd like
to remain in uniform.
stage in life, I guess this is the best way for me to serve my country."
Burnette write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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