PNAS Publishes Botulinum Paper

The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) today published, unchanged, a hot-button paper modeling a possible bioweapons attack. The decision displeased officials at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), who last month asked PNAS to pull the paper.

The paper concerns a study, led by Stanford University mathematician Lawrence Wein, that models a terrorist attack on the U.S. milk supply using botulinum toxin and discusses possible preventive measures. PNAS released the paper 25 May to reporters, but delayed publishing it after HHS assistant secretary for public health emergency preparedness Stewart Simonson suggested the information could aid terrorists (ScienceNOW, 31 May).

After meeting with HHS and conducting a review, PNAS decided the paper should be published with only copy editing changes, writes National Academy of Sciences president Bruce Alberts in an editorial accompanying an online version of the paper. Data in the paper that could help a terrorist--such as the lethal dose of botulinum toxin to humans--are freely available on the Internet, Alberts writes, and the modeling "can be valuable for biodefense." Wein, who had given HHS a copy of the paper last fall, is positive about the experience: "PNAS acted quite honorably," he says. "I think it was right for them to hear the government out."

But HHS feels its concerns weren't addressed. "While I respect the Academy's decision, I do not agree with it," Simonson told Science. "If the Academy is wrong, the consequences could be serious, and it will be HHS--not the Academy--that will have to deal with them." Alberts suggests that the incident serve as a case study for a new biosecurity advisory panel that will hold its first meeting later this week.

With reporting by Jon Cohen

Related sites
PNAS paper
Editorial by Bruce Alberts