Terror threat casts chill over world of bio-research

Arrest of Texas professor highlights emergence of security as a major issue

January 26, 2003|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

For three decades, Dr. Thomas C. Butler pursued medical science with quiet dedication at Texas Tech University, treating patients, publishing research papers and occasionally flying off to India or East Africa to study diseases.

But only this month did he achieve fame. After Butler reported 30 vials containing plague bacteria missing, about 60 local, state and federal law enforcement agents swooped down on the medical school as word of the bioterrorism scare was broadcast worldwide.

When the scientist then admitted that he had, in fact, destroyed the samples, he was hauled off to jail in handcuffs, accused of lying initially to the FBI. He has been released on bail, but he has surrendered his passport and is required to stay home on electronic monitoring to await a federal grand jury hearing next month.

FOR THE RECORD - An article about biological security in Sunday's editions of The Sun gave an incorrect last name for Joseph Fitzgerald, a senior associate of the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies. The Sun regrets the errors.

Colleagues have rallied around Butler, a white-haired 61-year-old with the kindly face of a television physician, insisting that he is no terrorist. They suspect he fibbed about the missing vials because he had not completed the paperwork required to document their destruction. They consider the FBI's reaction to be far out of proportion to the threat, even if the vials had disappeared.

"It scares the hell out of all of us," says Ted Warren Reid, a biochemist at Texas Tech who was preparing to collaborate with Butler on a study. "I think this guy is a typical absent-minded professor. You have 10 things going on at once and you forget something."

The reverberations are being felt across the country.

"Personally I found this event in Texas very chilling," says Susan C. Straley, a plague researcher at the University of Kentucky. "I'm scared. It's sort of a police-state atmosphere."

But security experts say the episode in Lubbock, Texas, is only one sign of how terrorism is remaking the world of biological research. Scientists used to thinking of their work as life-saving must now consider whether a terrorist could turn it into a weapon for mass killing.

Laboratories accustomed to the unlocked doors and open publications that promote scientific exchange now face voluminous paperwork, background checks and even censoring of sensitive journal papers.

"Many feel biology has lost its innocence now, just as physics lost its innocence with the development of the atomic bomb," says Joseph Henderson, a former Department of Energy safety official who studies biosecurity at the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies.

While the biology problem first came to public attention with the anthrax attacks 15 months ago, it is likely to grow only more serious as biotechnology advances, Henderson says: "As science gives us the power to re-engineer viruses and bacteria, we may be looking at the next generation of bioweapons whose dangers we can't yet even imagine."

Already two new laws - the USA Patriot Act and the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act - have imposed a dizzying array of new restrictions and reporting requirements on scientists whose work involves any of 62 pathogens listed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as potential bioweapons.

The rules are being phased in, with many scheduled to take effect Feb. 7. But many scientists privately acknowledge that they have yet to read or understand the regulations, whose complexity rivals that of the tax code.

Universities can no longer employ citizens of seven countries associated with terrorism to work with the listed bacteria and viruses - even if the employee is a permanent U.S. resident working in a mailroom shipping the organism. Other employees must undergo a "security risk assessment" by the Justice Department to weed out those with criminal records or ties to domestic or foreign terrorist groups.

Research organizations must register with the federal government, providing detailed safety plans and lists of people who will work with the dangerous agents. They must maintain detailed records of experiments with the pathogens and how they were disposed of, reporting theft, loss or release of any of the listed germs.

Some researchers fear the bureaucratic burden will discourage scientists from working with them.

"Will all these forms we have to fill out impede our ability to do research?" asks Dr. Michael Donnenberg, head of infectious diseases at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. "It weighs into the question of whether to work with these agents."

Donnenberg, for instance, is planning a research project involving a bacterium called Burkholderia mallei, which causes a disease called glanders in horses and other animals. Though it rarely infects humans, it is on the CDC list as a potential bioweapon.

After some consideration, Donnenberg decided the promise of his proposed research - trying to find a vaccine against glanders - makes it worth the extra costs and hassle. But he has serious concerns about how the terrorist threat is distorting biomedicine.

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