SCIENTISTS at Aberdeen University yesterday confirmed they are involved in military research using genetically modified antibodies to develop treatment for bubonic plague.

The disease, which swept across Europe in the seventeenth century, is still endemic in the Third World and the Scottish research team has worked for the last six months on the development of antibodies to treat the plague and provide short-term resistance to the lethal bacterium.

The disclosure is likely to prompt renewed concern about the possible public safety implications of military genetic modification experiments first raised by the Scottish National Party in The Herald earlier this month.

The three-strong research team, headed by Professor Bill Harris, has been commissioned by the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (Dera) - the body which runs the Government's top-secret Porton Down chemical and biological warfare centre in Wiltshire - to work on research into the killer disease. Earlier this week it emerged a vaccine had been developed against the plague, which is set to undergo human trials.

The academic yesterday claimed the research presented no health risk.

''We do what the body does. We do in a test tube what the body does day after day after day.''

Insisting the work was safe, he explained: ''We work with a small part of the protein from the plague bacterium. It is entirely safe.

''It is one protein from the bacterium, it is totally harmless.''

Professor Harris said the team's remit had been to provide short-term protection against bubonic plague for military staff working in areas where the disease remains a real health risk and for public protection in the event of a widespread epidemic.

''Bubonic plague is alive in very large parts of the world, mainly India and Pakistan. There are about 2000 cases of plague every year and half of them die. There is no real treatment for plague infections.

''In Madagascar, which has the population of Scotland, there are 200 cases each year. It is not a problem in the western world, but it is still a significant point. At any time there could be another pandemic which could sweep through places like China and India.''

He emphasised the work did not involve the development of a vaccine. ''What we are developing is really something which can be given to treat the disease and also gives protection for two to three weeks. It fills that gap to allow you to recover.

''We use genetically modified antibodies. We never see a bacterium up here at all.''

He said research was developing well on the two-year project, which was launched six months ago, but would not be drawn on the costs of the work.

Professor Harris said the antibodies would be kept in storage and used to treat anyone who may become infected in the meantime.

He insisted final research to establish the effectiveness of the treatment would be carried out at Porton Down.

The SNP's defence spokesman in the Scottish Parliament Mr Colin Campbell has tabled parliamentary questions seeking identification of the establishments involved in research.

Welcoming the Aberdeen disclosure, he said: ''Commercial confidentiality is insufficient an excuse to keep it secret.''