The government’s dubious bioterror case has sent a dangerous message

William B. Greenough III in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:

The U.S. government’s post-9/11 effort to make citizens more “secure” has had some frighteningly destructive consequences. One of the most egregious examples is the government’s prosecution–using new departmental powers of Homeland Security and the PATRIOT Act–of Thomas C. Butler, a distinguished scientist and doctor.

By the time you read this, Butler will have been in prison for well over a year. It’s a curious place for the U.S. government to put the man who is credited by the World Health Organization with saving the lives of more than two million children every year through a cholera treatment he helped to develop. Moreover, at the time of his arrest in 2003, Butler was researching ways to protect Americans from plague, a weaponizable pathogen.

Human plague, endemic in the United States, in Texas and other parts of the Southwest, is caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis and carried by rodents. From time to time, plague spreads to Americans who hunt or handle the infected rodents. But across the globe in Tanzania, plague is far more common and kills people regularly.

Butler, then a professor of medicine, chief of the Infectious Diseases Division of Texas Tech University, and one of the most knowledgeable and experienced clinical scientists in plague infections, was worried that if the disease were to arise in the United States–either naturally or through terrorism–the country would be ill-equipped to treat the victims. Both streptomycin and chloromycetin, the two antibiotics currently recommended to treat plague and prevent death, are old and not readily available at U.S. health centers. Butler felt that it was urgent to test the efficacy of two other readily available antibiotics–gentamicin and doxycycline. Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Fort Detrick, Fort Collins, and at the Food and Drug Administration agreed and were happy to collaborate in his research.

More here.