Struggle for botulinum toxin information raises questions about information control

Information for a new strain of botulinum toxin called "type H" was discovered in 2011, and genetic information has finally been turned over to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.


Botulinum toxin is produced by bacteria and is the most poisonous substance known, which is why researcher Stephen Arnon from the California Department of Public Health kept the genetic sequence a secret. He feared the toxin would be developed for use as a bioweapon, according to NPR.


The government requested that Arnon to share the novel information so they could test vaccines and antitoxins, but he declined for more than two years. His actions have revealed unresolved issues pertaining to scientific openness versus the potential of biological information being misused, NPR reports.


Records uncovered by NPR through public records requests showed increased frustration from the government when Arnon refused to reveal information about the strain. Information was shared in January with the CDC, and the center said there is much work to be done.


"The bottom line for us is, there's a lot more science to be done still," CDC Division of Foodborne, Waterborne and Environmental Diseases Deputy Director Robert Tauxe said, according to NPR. "With questions that are still open about just how does this toxin differ from the standard known seven toxin types... will the existing antitoxin that we have here in the United States protect against it, or not?"


The struggle to obtain the information has raised questions in the scientific community about who should serve as the gatekeeper of such information.


"Editors are running into more and more papers in which there are concerns," Arturo Casadevall, Albert Einstein College of Medicine immunologist and microbiologist, said, NPR reports. "And this is being handled ad hoc inside the journal."


Casadevall also edits the mBio journal and advises the government regarding research that could be misused as a member of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity


He said the responsibility of holding information falls on the scientists and journals, and the problem lies in the lack of expertise, NPR reports.


Now, journal editors are asking the government to create a national board to evaluate scientific papers for security risks and provide recommendations on whether the information should be kept a secret.


"This is an area where the jury's still out," Casadevall said, according to NPR. "Basically we have never faced these problems before in science and what we need is discussion and to come to a consensus on how these things are going to be handled. But right now, that doesn't exist."