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Trial begins in Texas plague scare

A government scientist testified that she was surprised when a Texas Tech University professor on trial for causing a bioterrorism scare carried around infectious plague cultures.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A government scientist testified Friday that she was surprised when a Texas Tech University professor on trial for causing a bioterrorism scare carried around infectious plague cultures.

May Chu of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also said her agency had declined an invitation to work with the professor, Thomas Butler, on a plague study he was doing with the Tanzanian government.

He is charged with multiple felony counts accusing him of smuggling plague bacteria from Tanzania, transporting it illegally, lying to federal agents and filing a false income tax return.

Butler, 62, created a sensation in January when he reported that vials of the bacteria responsible for bubonic plague were missing. The report, coming amid public worry over biological attack, prompted the FBI to rush dozens of agents to this West Texas city. The FBI says Butler, a noted researcher, later admitted he had destroyed the vials accidentally.

‘A clear flag of deception'
An FBI agent, Dale Green, testified that he arrived in on Jan. 14 amid the investigation into the reported theft, but before officers knew it was a hoax.

Green said he saw changes had been made in Butler’s lab notebook that were “a clear flag of deception for me.”

Green also testified that Butler seemed to be enjoying the limelight.

“He (Butler) said that this type of plague could be weaponized into a weapon of mass destruction within a 48-hour period and it would kill everyone in the area but a small fraction,” Green said.

Chu said Butler came to the CDC’s Fort Collins, Colo., facility in June 2002, and she thought he was bringing only noninfectious serum samples from Tanzanian plague patients. She thought she was supposed to arrange for the active cultures to be brought in later, after completing a lengthy paperwork process.

“When I say I was surprised, it was because he had the cultures, the slides, everything,” Chu said. “I was under the impression that the (culture) samples were still in Tanzania and that I was to arrange the shipment.”

Butler’s defense team has portrayed him as a dedicated scientist who was doing plague research for the U.S. Army, Food and Drug Administration and CDC. But Chu testified Friday that her agency decided not to join in his study because it would not have been ethical to get involved “after the fact.”

Prosecutors allege that Butler reported the vials missing because he was having difficulties with the university’s Institutional Review Board, which regulates research projects involving human subjects. Just a few days before he reported the vials missing, a letter was sent to Butler notifying him that the board was shutting down all of his human research.

Butler is chief of the infectious diseases division of the department of internal medicine at the university’s health sciences center. Mediation hearings have begun as part of the university’s process to dismiss him.