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Chill on Scientific Research

November 14, 2003

A respected U.S. biologist is before a Texas court on no fewer than 68 charges that could land him $17 million in fines and a 469-year prison sentence. Has the FBI finally nabbed the anthrax attacker? No.

Dr. Thomas Butler reported this year that 30 vials of the bacterium that causes bubonic plague were missing from his laboratory at Texas Tech University. Butler may well have violated pathogen-reporting laws. In a letter to the FBI, for instance, he used the word "misconduct" to describe his failure to tell his supervisors that the vials had been "accidentally destroyed." He has also admitted that he put test tubes containing blood and tissue samples infected with the plague into baggage he checked aboard a flight from Tanzania to the United States.

The FBI, however, is wrong to prosecute Butler as if he were trying to smuggle bio-weapons to terrorists. The former lead Ebola researcher for the U.S. Army and a plague researcher for the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Butler was chief of the Infectious Disease Division at Texas Tech until he was literally locked out of his lab a few months ago.

Federal anti-terror regulations are now so contradictory in detailing how scientists should use and transport pathogens that virtually any accident or failure to document could send researchers to jail. The FBI's unreasonable assault on Butler is more likely to have a chilling effect on U.S. scientists, discouraging them from researching deadly pathogens and from keeping federal officials informed about potential biohazards in their possession.

Last week, for instance, the British journal New Scientist reported that "labs in one [U.S.] state are no longer reporting routine incidents of animals poisoned with ricin, a deadly toxin found in castor beans, for fear of federal investigation." Labs receive federal funding for reporting poisonings by ricin, which can be used by terrorists. Legal assaults on researchers like Butler will surely make the problem worse.

Today, U.S. officials finish a weeklong summit with international delegates in Geneva to discuss the Biological Weapons Convention, the well-intentioned but toothless international treaty aimed at deterring bioweapons acquisition and manufacturing. The treaty has needed strengthening for more than 30 years. If there is a bioweapons domestic danger today, it lies with irresponsibly opaque laws and the slow pace of international regulators.

The weight of the U.S. justice system should not now be focused on making an example of one scientist. This sort of heavy-handed prosecution will only end up shutting down information and discouraging scientists from engaging in the very research that the government needs to fight bioterrorism.

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