HHS Asks PNAS to Pull Bioterrorism Paper

In an unprecedented move, officials at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) asked the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) to pull a bioterrorism-related paper that the journal planned to publish online on 30 May. The journal took the paper off its publication schedule on 27 May and has been reviewing it internally.

The paper, by mathematician Lawrence Wein of Stanford University and graduate student Yifan Lu, models how bioterrorists could wreak havoc by slipping a small amount of botulinum toxin into the U.S. milk supply, and it spells out interventions that the government and the dairy industry could take to prevent this nightmare scenario.

Stewart Simonson, HHS's assistant secretary for public health emergency preparedness, acknowledges that the idea of using botulinum as a bioweapon has already been widely discussed. "It's not the concept itself--you can't control everything," says Simonson. "It is the granularity of the detail." Wein, concerned about harming the chances that PNAS will eventually publish his paper, declined to discuss publicly the journal's interaction with him or HHS's request. On 30 May, however, the New York Times published an opinion piece by Wein—which the newspaper had accepted before PNAS decided to hold the report--that described the study in some detail.

PNAS highlighted the paper in its weekly tip sheet sent to journalists on 25 May, and also made an embargoed draft available. Simonson—whose office had received an earlier draft from Wein months before--says the PNAS paper first came to his attention the following evening. The next morning, he sent a letter to Bruce Alberts, president of the National Academy of Sciences, the journal's publisher, asking PNAS not to publish the paper. Later that day, PNAS sent an e-mail to reporters that publication of the paper had been delayed, simply noting that a new publication date will be announced. "We made a request," says Simonson. "There wasn't anything coercive."

Simonson recognizes that the flap will probably draw more attention to the paper than it otherwise might have received. "We thought about that," he says, "but it's a balance, and it struck us as the right thing to do."

Related sites
Wein's home page
The Op-Ed piece
More on botulism from the CDC
Article on the use of botulinum toxin as a biological weapon