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Last Updated

27 Feb 2003

Source: The Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, February 21, 2003

Tech professor flew with live plague samples


Thomas Butler, the Texas Tech professor accused of lying to the FBI about missing plague specimens, carried live samples of plague aboard commercial airlines for research at Tech, The Avalanche-Journal has learned through documents and individuals close to the case.

Attorney Floyd Holder, who represents Butler, insisted that Butler's method of transporting specimens of the plague-causing organism yersinia pestis, or YP, was completely safe. He said Butler secured the samples in a plastic container in his luggage. The plague samples, he said, were taken from infected Tanzanians.

"He described it to me that it would be impossible to break it (the container) with a sledge hammer," Holder said. "It was absolutely safe to transport it the way he did."

Vickie Sutton, a lawyer, scientist and director of Tech's Center for Biodefense, Law and Public Policy, disagreed.

"If that were the case, then why do we have regulations for safe transfer of select agents?" she asked.

Three forms of plague are caused by YP. The disease progresses rapidly and the bacteria can invade the blood stream, producing a severe illness called plague septicemia.

Symptoms of another form, bubonic plague, include fever, headache and general illness, followed by the development of painful, swollen lymph nodes.

The most dangerous type of plague is pneumonic, a relatively rare airborne variety. It can be spread through aerosol droplets released through coughs and sneezes or through fluid contact. Although not as common as the bubonic strain, it is more deadly. Left untreated, its mortality rate is nearly 100 percent.

"The very reason that we have controls for these select agents is because there's a public health risk," Sutton said. Simply breaking a tube of YP could lead to outbreaks of pneumonic plague, she said.

Federal agencies such as the Federal Aviation Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and others require permits and other documents for the transportation of biological material such as YP.

Butler is accused of lying to federal agents Jan. 14, 2003, when he reported that 30 vials of plague had been stolen from his lab at Tech's Health Sciences Center. The report triggered a massive investigation by local, state and federal authorities.

More than 60 investigators worked through the night of Jan. 14 to track down the missing vials. Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge called Mayor Marc McDougal to offer assistance, and President Bush was briefed on the matter.

Butler is free on a $100,000 bond and strict conditions set by federal court. He must wear an electronic monitor, is forbidden from contacting potential witnesses from the Food and Drug Administration, the CDC office in Fort Collins, Colo., and the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases in Fort Detrick, Md. He also may not contact potential witnesses in Tanzania or London. He is barred from carrying biological agents on any aircraft.

Butler is on paid administrative leave from the university and is forbidden from being on campus.

Holder said he believes federal authorities likely will bring additional charges against Butler based on their assertion that he failed to go through proper channels in importing live plague samples.

"There may be some laws out there somewhere that somebody thinks he broke, but I don't think he did," Holder said. "There may have been some problem with whether he dotted every 'i' and crossed every 't.' Certainly he had no criminal intent to smuggle anything in."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Dick Baker, prosecutor in the case, said, "I cannot comment on the potential charges or evidence in this ongoing investigation."

Butler penned a statement in which he admitted to telling authorities the YP samples were missing or stolen when in fact Butler knew he had destroyed them, the government alleges in court documents.

Holder questioned the credibility of that statement.

"You've got to figure out how that statement got constructed and who helped write that statement. It's not his language," Holder said. "We told everybody he did not pull a hoax, he did not tell people something was gone when he knew it wasn't gone that's the FBI's position."

Miles Burden, FBI supervisor of the Lubbock office, declined to comment on the case.

In a response to a Texas Public Information Act request submitted by The A-J, attorneys for the Tech Health Sciences Center said they could not furnish documents detailing Butler's inventory of plague, how it was stored or how it was transported to the lab.

"There are no records, to which TTUHSC has access at this time, that are federal shipping permits allowing Dr. Butler to send and receive human-derived samples of YP. Such documents may have been maintained by Dr. Butler and may be otherwise inaccessible due to the pending criminal investigation," lawyers for the Health Sciences Center told The A-J.

Tech's Institutional Biohazards Committee must approve research involving "biologically or chemically hazardous material," according to university policy, which is based on federal guidelines governing biological research.

Although Butler had approval for research involving YP cultures, "There are no documents from the IBC specifically approving Dr. Butler's use of human-derived YP," HSC attorneys said.

Pat Campbell, general counsel for Tech, said he could not provide specific details of Butler's standing with the university's Institutional Review Board, which governs such research.

However, he said, "I think the university as a whole, the Health Sciences Center has questions about how aware was the university of what he was doing and how he was doing it."

Holder said Butler was conducting research on people in Tanzania without review board approval, but he questioned whether the board has authority in foreign countries.

Holder also contends that once the samples reached Tech, there was no longer an element of human participation in the studies.

Sutton said that's not the case.

"Any sample that's identifiable with a person at any time, that is traceable (to a person), that's still a human subject," Sutton said. "From the kind of work he's doing, if he's taking samples back, he has to track their symptoms. He has to know who's getting the antibiotics. That's a federal law."

Butler, Holder said, did not lie to or mislead university officials about his research.

"He told everybody he had it (live human plague samples), where he got it and how he got it in, including the CDC, who are the people who are in charge of all this stuff," Holder said.

Butler brought the samples from Tanzania to Tech in April 2001. The samples were preparatory work for a $700,000 grant he was seeking from the FDA to study medical treatments for plague, Holder said.

Butler cultured the Tanzanian plague samples in his lab at Tech before delivering samples to Army medical research in Maryland, Holder said. Butler then took samples to the CDC in Fort Collins.

"Now if there's something wrong, why didn't the CDC say, 'Tom, how did you get this stuff into the country?' " Holder said. "They know how he got it in, and they approved of it and ratified it."

Holder said Butler has imported plague about 60 times over the past 30 years. He maintains the charges against Butler are an over-reaction on the part of authorities.

Baker disagrees.

"Any allegations of stolen biological pathogens will be responded to with a measured and appropriate response to ensure public health, safety and welfare, as was done in this case," he said.

Sutton said any potential biological weapons threat requires a rapid and comprehensive response.

"When there is a concern of stolen biological agent that is on one of the top three biological agents that can be weaponized, we should be concerned about it as a nation," Sutton said.

"The important thing in a biological threat is immediate response more so than nuclear or radiological because the threat will increase exponentially hour by hour and can't be contained to one site. Like no other threat, biological threats have to be dealt with immediately with full force."