Report of missing plague specimens in Texas was false alarm

Jan 17, 2003 (CIDRAP News) – A researcher's report of missing vials of the bacteria that causes plague led to a full-scale alert and investigation at Texas Tech University in Lubbock this week, but the alarm was called off when the researcher revealed he had previously destroyed the vials.

Thomas Butler, MD, admitted in a handwritten statement that he had given officials inaccurate information about 30 vials containing Yersinia pestis, according to reports by the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal and the Associated Press. Butler, chief of the infectious diseases division at the Texas Tech School of Medicine, was arrested Wednesday evening (Jan 15) on a charge of providing false information to a federal officer, according to the newspaper.

In his written statement, Butler said he had told the laboratory safety officer Jan 13 that the 30 vials of bacteria were missing, according to Avalanche-Journal reports based on the federal complaint against Butler. His statement went on to say that the vials actually had been accidentally destroyed earlier. Butler stated that he reported the vials missing "to demonstrate why I could not account for the plague bacteria that had been in my possession," according to the newspaper reports. Butler added that he made a "misjudgment" by not telling the safety officer the truth. "Because I knew that the pathogen was no threat to the public, I provided an inaccurate explanation to Dr. Jones and did not realize it would require such an extensive investigation," he stated.

About 60 investigators from various agencies, including the FBI and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), went to the Texas Tech Health Sciences Center Tuesday (Jan 14) to look into the apparent theft, according to Avalanche-Journal reports. But the alarm was canceled after Butler admitted that he had destroyed the vials.

In an Associated Press report Jan 16, Lubbock FBI agent Lupe Gonzalez was quoted as stating that all the vials had been accounted for and that there was "no danger to public safety whatsoever."

Butler's attorney, Floyd Holder, told the Avalanche-Journal that Butler is innocent. "My client intends to plead not guilty, and he's looking forward to proving to a jury that he's innocent," Holder said.

The university reported the apparent disappearance of the plague vials in a Jan 15 news release. Officials said that when the problem was reported to the School of Medicine Tuesday afternoon, school officials promptly notified local, state, and federal public health and law enforcement agencies. The bacteria were being used in research to determine if new antibiotics are effective against plague, according to the release. Butler has been doing research on plague for more than 25 years and is internationally recognized for his work, officials said.

Plague is one of the six diseases that terrorists are considered most likely to try to use as biological weapons. The Japanese military used Y pestis as a weapon against the Chinese in World War II, and both the United States and the Soviet Union later developed techniques for aerosolizing Y pestis.

See also:

Comprehensive CIDRAP information about plague as a disease and a biological weapon

CDC resources on plague

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