US scientist arrested over claim of plague vials theft

An internationally renowned scientist was being questioned by police yesterday after allegedly making false claims that 30 vials of a deadly plague bacteria had been stolen from his university.

Thomas Butler was arrested after his claims sparked a major investigation and triggered fears that terrorists may have taken the bacteria, which cause bubonic plague. Such was the initial concern that Tom Ridge, the Homeland Security director, personally intervened in the investigation.

Police say their investigation revealed that the bacteria had not been stolen and had in reality been destroyed by Dr Butler before he claimed the vials were missing from a laboratory at Texas Tech university in Lubbock.

Dr Butler was arrested on Wednesday night for allegedly giving false information to the FBI. He was due to appear in court last night. Dick Baker, a US Attorney, said the 30 vials contained bacteria obtained from tissue samples from East Africa. Dr Butler said they were missing though "as he well knew, he had destroyed them prior to that".

The samples, among 180 the school has been using for research on the treatment of plague, were first reported missing to campus police on Tuesday night. Dr Butler was the only person with authorised access to the bacteria, which are classified as a select agent that has to be registered with the International Biohazards Committee and with the federal government.

Around 60 law enforcement officers were involved in the subsequent investigation, during which they interviewed Dr Butler. FBI officer Lupe Gonzalez, said: "We have accounted for all those missing vials and we have determined that there is no danger to public safety whatsoever." The authorities have not said why they believe Dr Butler made the allegedly false comments.

Officials said Dr Butler was the chief of the infectious diseases division of the department of internal medicine at the university's medical school. The university said he has been involved in plague research for more than 25 years and was internationally recognised in the field.

Richard Homan, dean of the School of Medicine, said the bacteria form of plague being used for research "was not weaponised in any way".