Bioterrorism Fear Led Scientists to Withhold Botulinum Toxin Info


Researchers gauge benefits and risks of publishing data that could be used for public good or to spread terror.

Researchers have uncovered a new breed of Botulinum toxin, however, they are withholding certain information about the neurotoxin out of concern it could be misused by individuals seeking to develop a biological weapon, National Public Radio reported on Wednesday.

Botulinum toxin is produced by the bacterium, Clostridium botulinum, which is present in soil all over the world. The toxin in past decades was studied by governments for use as an aerially dispersed bio-weapon best-suited for use in an enclosed space or to poison food supplies. The Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo tried unsuccessfully to carry out botulism attacks in Tokyo in the 1990s. Though treatments are available for other forms of the deadly toxin, there is no cure available for the recently discovered version.

The new version was identified by Stephen Arnon and Jason Barash of the California Public Health Department. Information released by scientists online in the Journal of Infectious Diseasesintentionally was left incomplete.

"This is not the usual process for publishing manuscripts," said Massachusetts General Hospital infectious disease researcher David Hooper, who is an editor of the journal.

Typically, the journal would have researchers provide specifics on the genetic sequences that produce a pathogen. In this instance, though, the scientists decided it posed too great of a proliferation danger and the journal editors agreed with them. Once medical countermeasures are created to treat the new Botulinum toxin, the genetic details for it could be released.

"There was enough scientific importance that we did not want to delay the publication," Hooper said.

The incident shows how the scientific community is wrestling with how to judge the benefits and risks of publishing data that could be used for public good or to spread terror. In 2012, there was a serious debate within the community over the ethics of publishing specific details on how to render avian influenza into a form that could more easily be transmitted among mammals.

Stanford University microbiologist David Relman, who provided advice to the journal on the issue, said he thought the researchers behaved responsibly.

"I want to applaud the authors for acting in a way that I think was responsible and prudent," he said.

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