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Opinion: A New Botulism Toxin

Botulism is a rare, but deadly illness
Botulism is a rare, but deadly illness

On October 7, 2013, researchers published two reports describing their work in The Journal of Infectious Diseases, regarding the discovery of the first new type of Clostridium botulinum toxin, called botulism H. In a very uncommon ploy, these scientists have elected to keep the toxin’s data a secret so that no one can replicate this deadly toxin in a lab and unleash it unto an unsuspecting and defenseless population.

Until now, C. botulinum has been known to produce seven types of toxins, all of which cause paralysis by jamming neurotransmitters in humans and animals. The last type of toxin was discovered 43 years ago in 1970.

Since botulism H is a form of C. botulinum toxin, it is high on the list of feared biological weapons because it can seriously paralyze people who swallow or breathe it. Worse, botulism H does not have a developed antidote that is effective. The fear is that sinister organizations or rogue governments might use key details of the new toxin to reverse engineer a more deadly version, making it a strong bioterrorism threat. Over the course of history, C. botulinum has been known or suspected to have been part of biological weapons programs in countries such as the Soviet Union, Iran, Iraq, North Korea and Syria. At one time, the C. botulinum was used inexpertly in Tokyo in the early 1990s by the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo before they turned to the nerve agent sarin.

As an untreatable illness, this new strain of botulism H is a serious threat because there is no known treatment, given that the scientists and researchers responsible of discovering the new strain are committed to withholding key details to the public.

Why would these scientists and researcher withhold information about a new discovery? To save lives. And so no one can use the strain for biological and chemical warfare. This is the question everyone in the field of health security is struggling with, as potential threats of biological and chemical weapons emerge in the future.

Which is why the scientists and researchers are in a tough pickle. They have information that could be detrimental in creating a cure, as well as being used for mass destruction against innocent populations.

For argument’s sake, this information could very well be the salvation for the populations in areas where botulism H can become a prevalent threat, especially in underdeveloped countries. As such, the scientists owe it to the people of these improvised regions a chance of protection and preparedness. I am by no means asking anyone to release all of the data at once. Merely, I believe it is in the best interests of the global community to be spared key parts of botulism H that can help alleviate the fear of contracting this incurable toxin.

Holding back on this information is not a smart move because no good will come in the long run. These scientists and researchers must come to their senses and release hope for the world. New information can save lives, where the door for a new antidote to be opened. Those in line to be affected by botulism H deserve to be prepared and most importantly, deserve to live.

* I came across this topic, fall 2013, during my Global Health, Bioterrorism and International Security course, taught under Dr. Yanzhong Huang.

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