Could botulism be the next bioweapon?

A minute quantity of the C. botulinum toxin can fatally paralyze people who swallow or breathe it

Topics: Scientific American, Botulism, Bio weapons, Terror threat, Terror alert,

Could botulism be the next bioweapon? (Credit: Shutterstock)
This article was originally published by Scientific American.

Scientific AmericanScientists have discovered a new strain—the first in 40 years—of Clostridium botulinum, the bacterium that is ultimately responsible for causing botulism. And although they have reported their findings in a scientific journal, the investigators have taken the extraordinary step of withholding key details of the discovery. That’s because the toxins made by C. botulinum are the most dangerous known to humankind and currently there is no antidote for a toxin generated by the new strain. The fear is that malevolent organizations or rogue governments might use the information to reverse engineer their own version of the new bug, making it a potent and real bioterrorism threat.

C. botulinum toxin is high on the list of feared biological weapons because minute quantities can fatally paralyze people who swallow or breathe it. It is known or suspected to have been part of bioweapon programs in countries such as the Soviet Union, Iran, Iraq, North Korea and Syria, and was used, fortunately ineptly, in Tokyo in the early 1990s by the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo before they turned to the nerve agent sarin.

A consensus statement on C. botulinumtoxin as a biological weapon published in 2001 in JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association calculated that “a single gram of crystalline toxin, evenly dispersed and inhaled, would kill more than one million people.”

Until now there have been seven known strains of the bacterium; the toxins they make are labeled A through G. There are antidotes for those, but each antitoxin neutralizes only the specific toxin against which it is made, and none works against the new toxin that has been dubbed H.

Until an antidote can be developed, the scientists who discovered the strain—employees of the California Department of Public Health—have decided not to release the genetic blueprints of either the new strain or the H toxin. The bacterium was isolated from a patient who had developed botulism but, fortunately, did not die.

The findings are described in two papers that were published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases (JID). The senior author, C. botulinum expert Stephen Arnon, was not available for interview. But Gilberto Chavez, deputy director of the Center for Infectious Diseases in the California Department of Public Health, said in an email interview that development of an H antitoxin requires additional work by many partners and suggests that even partial publication of the information will speed the effort.

Like many scientific journals, the JID normally requires authors to include genetic sequences in their papers in order that other scientists can attempt to replicate and build on the research. Deputy editor David Hooper says Arnon had already conducted discussions with a number of federal government agencies about the idea of holding back the sequence data before he approached the journal to see if they would publish the finding.

U.S. government agencies consulted included the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response’s Division of Select Agents and Toxins.

Arnon “was trying to be very careful and thoughtful because of the biothreat consequences,” says Hooper, who notes that the journal would have been uncomfortable about taking this approach but for the opinions of the government agencies that weighed in on the publication plan. He says the journal had a number of discussions about whether publishing redacted work was an appropriate thing to do. “We decided it was important enough to let the scientific community know.” The journal plans to add the sequence data to the scientific record later, once an H antitoxin is made.

The situation creates a sharp counterpoint to a debate that ignited in international scientific circles two years ago this fall. That was when leading influenza scientists in the U.S. and the Netherlands attempted to publish details of how they had genetically engineered H5N1 “bird flu” virus to spread among ferrets, mammals that often serve as a proxy for people in influenza research. To date, wild H5N1 viruses do not transmit this way.

At that time, the NIH’s National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB)—an expert panel that advises the U.S. government—recommended that the mutations that rendered the viruses more easily transmissible be withheld from publication. Making the information public was in effect publishing a recipe for a pandemic virus that could be unleashed on the world by terrorists or overly ambitious scientists working in laboratories without adequate biosecurity conditions, the group argued.

Months of debate ensued, involving the World Health Organization and U.S. government agencies. Many argued that rules governing the publication of sensitive information—known as export controls—made it clear that the studies could be published in full or not at all, but they could not be published in a redacted form. (Hooper says the documentation that flowed from Arnon’s discussions with the government did not raise concerns about export controls.)

In March 2012 the NSABB withdrew its recommendation about the H5N1 research and the flu articles were published in full in a few weeks later. David Relman is a member of the NSABB who opposed full publication of the contentious flu studies. He applauds the California group’s handling of the C. botulinum papers. “In my book, they did the right thing. And I think it’s important to say that we don’t think or hope or expect that this sort of situation is going to arise often, because I certainly wouldn’t want to see authors and journals redacting bits of information willy-nilly or frequently. But I do think this is a really unusual circumstance,” says Relman, an infectious diseases specialist at Stanford University and the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System in California.

But that view is not shared by Ron Fouchier, a Dutch virologist who was the senior author of one of the H5N1 papers. Fouchier’s view is that—with very few exceptions—science must be shared openly. And he believes Arnon and his co-authors could have held off publishing these papers until the H antitoxin was made. He notes the articles were submitted to the journal in May and the California laboratory probably had the information for a few months before that. “Why rush now? Why not wait another two months until you have the antisera, then you publish? You release all the information at once,” says Fouchier, with Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam.

Chavez says publishing even a little information was important for the diagnosis, treatment and control of botulism. But Fouchier argues that laboratories elsewhere that are trying to type C. botulinum strains will not be able to spot the new strain if they encounter it by using the information in these papers.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 14
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Pilot"

    One of our first exposures to uncomfortable “Girls” sex comes early, in the pilot episode, when Hannah and Adam “get feisty” (a phrase Hannah hates) on the couch. The pair is about to go at it doggy-style when Adam nearly inserts his penis in “the wrong hole,” and after Hannah corrects him, she awkwardly explains her lack of desire to have anal sex in too many words. “Hey, let’s play the quiet game,” Adam says, thrusting. And so the romance begins.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Elijah, "It's About Time"

    In an act of “betrayal” that messes up each of their relationships with Hannah, Marnie and Elijah open Season 2 with some more couch sex, which is almost unbearable to watch. Elijah, who is trying to explore the “hetero side” of his bisexuality, can’t maintain his erection, and the entire affair ends in very uncomfortable silence.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Charlie, "Vagina Panic"

    Poor Charlie. While he and Marnie have their fair share of uncomfortable sex over the course of their relationship, one of the saddest moments (aside from Marnie breaking up with him during intercourse) is when Marnie encourages him to penetrate her from behind so she doesn’t have to look at him. “This feels so good,” Charlie says. “We have to go slow.” Poor sucker.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and camp friend Matt, "Hannah's Diary"

    We’d be remiss not to mention Shoshanna’s effort to lose her virginity to an old camp friend, who tells her how “weird” it is that he “loves to eat pussy” moments before she admits she’s never “done it” before. At least it paves the way for the uncomfortable sex we later get to watch her have with Ray?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Hard Being Easy"

    On the heels of trying (unsuccessfully) to determine the status of her early relationship with Adam, Hannah walks by her future boyfriend’s bedroom to find him masturbating alone, in one of the strangest scenes of the first season. As Adam jerks off and refuses to let Hannah participate beyond telling him how much she likes watching, we see some serious (and odd) character development ... which ends with Hannah taking a hundred-dollar bill from Adam’s wallet, for cab fare and pizza (as well as her services).

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Booth Jonathan, "Bad Friend"

    Oh, Booth Jonathan -- the little man who “knows how to do things.” After he turns Marnie on enough to make her masturbate in the bathroom at the gallery where she works, Booth finally seals the deal in a mortifying and nearly painful to watch sex scene that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about how much Marnie is willing to fake it.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Tad and Loreen, "The Return"

    The only sex scene in the series not to feature one of the main characters, Hannah’s parents’ showertime anniversary celebration is easily one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the show’s first season. Even Hannah’s mother, Loreen, observes how embarrassing the situation is, which ends with her husband, Tad, slipping out of the shower and falling naked and unconscious on the bathroom floor.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and the pharmacist, "The Return"

    Tad and Loreen aren’t the only ones to get some during Hannah’s first season trip home to Michigan. The show’s protagonist finds herself in bed with a former high school classmate, who doesn’t exactly enjoy it when Hannah puts one of her fingers near his anus. “I’m tight like a baby, right?” Hannah asks at one point. Time to press pause.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Role-Play"

    While it’s not quite a full-on, all-out sex scene, Hannah and Adam’s attempt at role play in Season 3 is certainly an intimate encounter to behold (or not). Hannah dons a blond wig and gets a little too into her role, giving a melodramatic performance that ends with a passerby punching Adam in the face. So there’s that.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and Ray, "Together"

    As Shoshanna and Ray near the end of their relationship, we can see their sexual chemistry getting worse and worse. It’s no more evident than when Ray is penetrating a clothed and visibly horrified Shoshanna from behind, who ends the encounter by asking if her partner will just “get out of me.”

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Frank, "Video Games"

    Hannah, Jessa’s 19-year-old stepbrother, a graveyard and too much chatting. Need we say more about how uncomfortable this sex is to watch?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Desi, "Iowa"

    Who gets her butt motorboated? Is this a real thing? Aside from the questionable logistics and reality of Marnie and Desi’s analingus scene, there’s also the awkward moment when Marnie confuses her partner’s declaration of love for licking her butthole with love for her. Oh, Marnie.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Vagina Panic"

    There is too much in this scene to dissect: fantasies of an 11-year-old girl with a Cabbage Patch lunchbox, excessive references to that little girl as a “slut” and Adam ripping off a condom to ejaculate on Hannah’s chest. No wonder it ends with Hannah saying she almost came.

  • Recent Slide Shows


Loading Comments...