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Scientist in plague vial case set to appear court

Dr. Thomas Butler
Dr. Thomas Butler

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CNN's Susan Candiotti reports on the arrest of a Texas Tech scientist who allegedly destroyed vials containing bacteria samples that could cause bubonic plague. (January 16)
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CNN Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta explains different forms of plague and what causes them. (January 15)
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LUBBOCK, Texas (CNN) -- The university scientist accused of making false statements to the FBI about missing vials of bacteria that could cause bubonic plague is expected in court Thursday, law enforcement sources said.

Dr. Thomas Butler, 61, chief of the Infectious Disease Division at Texas Tech University's Department of Internal Medicine, was leading a study aimed at developing antibiotics to fight the plague.

One law enforcement source said Butler first notified the school Tuesday that the vials were missing. He repeated this assertion when the FBI questioned him, saying he did not know how or why the vials came to be missing, but he later recanted and admitted destroying them himself, the source said.

The vials were destroyed sometime before January 11, sources said, and Butler allegedly did not fill out the required documentation.

A Texas Tech spokeswoman said Wednesday it is premature to say what action school officials may take and that it is too early to say whether Butler will be suspended pending an investigation.

"I hope we'll be able to continue the research," spokeswoman Cindy Rugeley said.

The vials -- about 30 in all -- were reported missing Tuesday, prompting fears of a potential bioterror threat. Those fears, however, were short-lived, and authorities said all of the vials had been accounted for Wednesday. (More on plague)

Butler's wife said her husband had been interviewed by the FBI and that she knows nothing about the destruction of vials. Mrs. Butler said she believes the situation is being blown out of proportion. "He's a dedicated man and a good person," she said.

The vials contained bacteria samples that could cause bubonic or pneumonic plague. They came from a stock of about 180 vials that are part of a study by Butler, who has more than 25 years' experience with plague research. (Plague treatments)

BUBONIC PLAGUE

  • What: Potentially fatal disease caused by bacterium Yersinia pestis.
  • How contracted: Bite from rodent flea carrying the plague bacterium.
  • Symptoms: Swollen, tender lymph nodes (swollen gland called a bubo -- hence bubonic plague), fever, chills, extreme exhaustion.
  • Incidence: Ten to 20 persons a year infected in rural areas of Western United States. Globally, 1,000 to 3,000 cases a year.
  • Treatment: Antibiotics. If not treated promptly it can cause death. About 14 percent of all U.S. plague cases are fatal.
  • Place in history: Millions of Europeans died in the Middle Ages when flea-infested rats inhabited homes and workplaces.

    Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  • "This was not weaponized in any way," said Richard Homan, dean of the Texas Tech School of Medicine. "This was material that was obtained through international colleagues of one of our faculty members. It was brought here for further study."

    The vials came from the East African nation of Tanzania, law enforcement sources said.

    They were all classified as plague, and some were classified as bubonic plague. The college received them in April.

    Bacteria and viruses, such as the plague, are widely available to researchers at universities across the United States.

    CNN National Correspondent Susan Candiotti and Justice Correspondent Kelli Arena contributed to this report.


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