Two new studies recently published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases have reportedly identified for the first time in more than 40 years a new strain of Clostridium botulinum, prompting debate over whether the genetic sequences needed to reproduce the toxin should be made available to the public despite concerns that the information could pose a security risk. Jason Barash and Stephen Arnon, “A Novel Strain of Clostridium botulinum That Produces Type B and Type H Botulinum Toxins,” Journal of Infection Diseases, October 2013. Nir Dover, et al., “Molecular Characterization of a Novel Botulinum Neurotoxin Type H Gene,” Journal of Infection Diseases, October 2013.  

According to an October 10, 2013, article in CIDRAP News, the California Department of Public Health researchers who discovered botulinum neurotoxin type H (BoNT/H) using an infant botulism case have declined to release their data until an antitoxin has been developed. They apparently arrived at their decision after consulting with several government agencies as well as the journal’s editors, who in turn exempted the researchers from the usual requirement that they submit gene nucleotide sequences to the International Nucleotide Sequence Databases before publication.  

At the same time, however, David Relman, chief of infectious diseases with the VA Palo Alto Health Care System and principle investigator with the Stanford University School of Medicine, notes in a concurrent editorial that the BoNT/H case recalls the controversy surrounding Nature’s decision to publish research detailing the creation of a human-contagious form of avian flu. In particular, he suggests that the scientific community needs to invest in a mechanism to mitigate the risk of such studies while allowing important research to continue. David Relman, “‘Inconvenient truths’ in the pursuit of scientific knowledge and public health,” Journal of Infectious Diseases, October 2013.  

“I hope that this discovery forces policy-makers, scientists, and other members of the general society to confront the reality of increasingly frequent and consequential risks that arise from work in the life sciences, and develop more robust strategies for risk mitigation,” Relman told CIDRAP News. “I am quite worried that the challenges and complexities of developing such strategies has caused many scientists, science policy-makers and others in government to turn away, and either proclaim that the risks are not real, or that we have no such mechanisms for limited communication and therefore that we should stop working on this.”