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US crackdown on bioterror backfiring

THIS week, a respected biologist was led into a Texas courtroom. He faces no fewer than 68 charges and could end up in jail for the rest of his life. Has the FBI finally caught the anthrax attacker? No. Thomas Butler merely reported that 30 vials of plague bacteria had gone missing from his laboratory at Texas Tech University in Lubbock.

Many of Butler's colleagues believe the justice authorities are making an example of him as part of a wider effort to ensure that scientists take more care with material terrorists might exploit. Whatever the outcome of the case (see right), that effort is having repercussions that go far beyond the fate of one scientist.

New Scientist has contacted more than 20 prominent figures in the US working in bioterror-related fields. Some refused to talk, and most who did did not want to be named. Their comments paint a disturbing picture. Some scientists, for instance, are refusing to work on projects involving agents that could be exploited as bioweapons, even though the US government is providing massive funding to boost such research.

Others are considering abandoning existing work. Irreplaceable collections of microbes essential for managing and tracing outbreaks, bioterrorist or natural, are being destroyed simply because labs cannot comply with the new rules. The climate of fear created by the Butler case is even threatening the US's ability to detect bioterrorist activity.

New Scientist has been told that labs in one state are no longer reporting routine incidents of animals poisoned with ricin, a deadly toxin found in castor beans, for fear of federal investigation.

And if any terrorist ever does make off with dangerous bacteria, it will be a brave scientist who tells the FBI. As one put it: "I don't want to end up in a cell with Tom Butler." In a letter sent to the US attorney-general John Ashcroft in September, Stanley Falkow, a respected researcher at Stanford University in California
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Contact: Claire Bowles
claire.bowles@rbi.co.uk
44-207-331-2751
New Scientist
5-Nov-2003


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