PNAS publishes bioterror paper, after all

After delaying paper on milk and bioterror at government request, journal decides it's safe to print

By | June 29, 2005

Four weeks after delaying publication of a paper at the request of the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), who argued it provided information that was useful to terrorists, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) published the paper yesterday (June 28). The study pinpoints areas in the dairy industry that are highly vulnerable to bioterror attacks.

In the paper, professor of management science Lawrence M. Wein and graduate student Yifan Liu of Stanford University in California explain how bioterrorists could poison the US milk supply with trace amounts of botulinum toxin, detailing the amount needed to kill hundreds of thousands of people, where it could sneak into the milk supply, and which interventions could head off such an attack.

In an accompanying editorial, Bruce Alberts, president of the National Academy of Sciences, noted that PNAS decided to publish the article "as originally accepted," because they believed that, despite the government's concerns, the article "can be valuable for biodefense" by informing scientists and other key players working to strengthen food security. A PNAS spokesperson told TheScientist the editorial would serve as the journal's statement on the matter.

In a statement through a spokesperson, Stewart Simonson, HHS Assistant Secretary for Public Health Emergency Preparedness, said he regretted the journal's decision to publish the paper. "We recognize, of course, that this is an issue about which good and reasonable people disagree," he said. "But I must say that if the Academy is wrong, the consequences could be dire and it will be HHS–not the Academy–which will have to deal with it."

In an interview with The Scientist, Wein said he believed this paper was no more detailed than other, previous reports on the nation's vulnerability to attacks using anthrax or smallpox. "This really wasn't a roadmap for terrorism," he said.

He added that the critical information in the paper is available from public sources, including the Internet. He said he chose to publish the paper to help "nudge" policymakers into better protecting the nation's dairy supply. Furthermore, Wein said that his estimates of the amount of toxin needed to poison the country's dairy supply are "imprecise," and not good enough to truly help terrorists.

Before the government asked PNAS to pull the paper, it survived a review by experts in botulinum toxin, mathematical modeling and biosecurity, and members of the PNAS editorial board, according to Alberts' editorial. Reviewers followed the recommendations of the National Academies' so-called "Fink report," released in October 2003 to establish a balance between scientific openness and national security.

Bill Hall, spokesperson for the HHS, who spoke to The Scientist after the paper was initially pulled, said this is the first time he knows of the HHS asking an academic publication to hold a paper due to terrorism concerns. Although many argue that newspapers and other outlets have exposed vulnerabilities in transportation, nuclear power and other sectors that terrorists could exploit, Hall said this paper stood out because of the "level of detail." It's one thing to say the dairy industry is vulnerable, he noted, it's another to specifically describe how to poison the country's dairy supply. "That's a level of granularity that's of no help to anyone but terrorists," he said.

Hall added that the government "absolutely doesn't want to shut down scientific research," but in some cases, the safety of the American public has to take precedence.

James Cullor, director of the Veterinary Medicine Teaching and Research Center at the University of California, Davis, told The Scientist that he believed the paper "put millions of children at risk," and all of the recommendations to protect the nation's milk supply were already known to experts, who were working on them before the researchers became involved in the topic.

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