Botulinum strain secrecy creates tension between researcher and U.S. government

Genetic information for a new strain of botulinum, called "type H," was turned over to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention after two years of contentious debate between the researcher and the United States government.


California Department of Public Health researcher Stephen Arnon discovered the new strain in 2011, and battled with the government to keep the genetic sequence a secret for more than two years. Arnon feared the information would be used to create a bioweapon, according to NPR.


The National Institutes of Health, the CDC, Department of Defense and the Federal Bureau of Investigation were able to meet with Arnon on May 29, 2012, to talk about the newly discovered strain and toxin. Officials requested information about the strain, but Arnon was reluctant to produce it.


Emails obtained by NPR through public records requests reveal the government became more frustrated with Arnon.


"It's time for us to revisit the issue of making available your novel [botulinum] strain for USG [U.S. government] evaluation," NIH Office of BioDefense Research Affairs Director Michael said to Arnon in 2012, NPR reports. "At this point, I have exhausted my internal resources to constructively engage with you on this topic... If you are prepared to share your strain (and I do mean a live strain, rather than an extract), then let us proceed. On the other hand, if we are merely to continue with unproductive conversations and more letter writing, I will simply declare defeat on my part to address what may represent a potentially serious vulnerability to a biothreat agent that had been previously considered adequately addressed."


Arnon did not produce the requested information at the time, nor did he release it to fellow botulism researchers.


Andreas Rummel from Hannover Medical School in Germany said he also requested the information, and Arnon repeatedly refused him.


"He was not willing to provide any even partial sequence of the strain," Rummel said, according to NPR. "At least the release of a partial sequence would have helped to improve diagnostics worldwide."


The CDC was able to obtain the strain's genetic sequence in January, and has begun to study the bacteria and the toxin it produces.


"I'm not going to say either way whether he was right or wrong," U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases Researcher Leonard Smith said, NPR reports. "In his conviction, he felt that the way he handled this was the way it needed to be. He didn't want to be accused of putting information out there that could come back and harm the United States, and I have to respect his conviction and judgment on that."

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