The discovery of a new strain of botulism – the first in 40 years – has spurred bioterrorism concerns among state health officials, who have removed the deadly toxin’s genetic sequencing information from recently published research, a move that some scientists find alarming.
The new toxin, Clostridium botulinum, was discovered in California this year by the state Department of Public Health. An infant who contracted the illness survived, although the state health department has not said when or where the baby was examined or treated.
While the agency’s findings appeared in the Journal of Infectious Diseases in October, the genetic sequence that makes up the botulism toxin was not included in the report.
Removal of the information has spawned concern among scientists who regard access to all scientific research findings as sacrosanct. The issue is reminiscent of a January 2012 controversy over a federal advisory board’s call for scientific research into avian flu, known as H5N1, to be kept under wraps so it could not be exploited by a rogue state or bioterrorist group. The research eventually was published in scientific journals several months later.
The decision to withhold the newly discovered botulism gene sequence came after scientists consulted with federal agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, the Department of Justice, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said Stephen Arnon, lead researcher of the paper and chief of the Infant Botulism Treatment and Prevention program at the state Department of Public Health.
Central to the department’s decision is the fact that no antitoxin exists to treat an accidental or premeditated outbreak of the toxin. It takes roughly one to two years to develop an antitoxin.
The fear among some is that gene sequence information gleaned from published research could be used to develop a bioweapon that can be spread as an aerosol, resulting in many fatalities. Recent advances in technology have made it possible to reproduce such toxins, said David Relman, professor of medicine and microbiology at the Stanford University School of Medicine.
“There is certainly more awareness of the possibility of doing harm – not only of the means and capability of doing harm – but also the fact that there seems to be more people who voice that kind of perspective and intention,” said Relman.
Cloning a toxin would have been a fairly involved undertaking in 1970, whereas it is not so now, Relman said.
“The recommendations from the federal government were clear on the potential risks of publishing the gene sequence,” said Arnon. “There was agreement among all involved in the discussions that it would be possible to publish this information to achieve the scientific and public health benefits of sharing the finding while safeguarding national security.”
Identifying a new botulism toxin is a difficult process that requires specialized laboratories. The state Department of Public Health is one of the few agencies charged nationally with the development of antitoxins for botulism strains. There are now eight.
Arnon said it’s possible the new toxin has caused others to become ill but wasn’t recognized as the new botulism strain. Clostridium botulinum is part of a family tree of bacteria that produces a wide range of toxins. This particular toxin is considered deadly – inhaling just a minute amount of it would prove fatal to an adult.
Research papers on the discovery of deadly toxins are not rare. When they are published, the gene sequencing information has been included. The information is a key tool for scientists who are researching such toxins and ways to counteract them in lab animals and humans.
“This is pretty unusual – for them to flag something like this and have some internal review and discussions with the powers that be and decide to black out the section of the genome corresponding to that toxin,” said Jonathan Eisen, a microbiology professor at UC Davis and an investigator with the federal Department of Energy’s Joint Genome Institute.
Before taking his post at UC Davis, while at the Institute for Genomic Research, Eisen worked on genome sequencing of anthrax placed in letters that killed or sickened 22 individuals in 2001.
“We had many, many discussions about whether one should publish the genome data. In general, all the conclusions were that it was better to publish the data,” said Eisen. “As a scientist, if something is published, you want to be able to see everything. You want to see their method. People should have access to all the different data … in order to reassess for yourself whether or not you agree with their conclusions. That is the general practice of science.”
For some, constraining science is problematic.
“There is no tried and true formula for resolving this kind of conflict,” said Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy. “If the government were to step in and prohibit publication of certain research, that would indeed be censorship, and would create other sorts of problems, like the development of a new kind of scientific underground, a shift to research overseas, and so on.”
Papers with full genetic sequence information generally have been published without incident. In 2005, for example, gene sequence information for the 1918 Spanish flu virus, taken from tissue of an Inuit woman who died from the virus in 1918, was made public. The woman’s body had been preserved in the Alaskan tundra since her death.
The Spanish flu, which appeared in the winter of 1918, killed 50 million people.