Bioterrorism: How To Poison Milk


Over the objections of the Department of Health and Human Services, the National Academies of Sciences (NAS) will publish a paper detailing how terrorists might contaminate the US milk supply. Stewart Simonson, assistant secretary of Health and Human Services, argued that the paper could be a "road map for terrorists."

Researchers Lawrence M. Wein and Yifan Liu of Stanford University explain how tiny, but extremely deadly, amounts of the botulinum toxin could be introduced into our milk supply. How tiny and how deadly? The researchers find, "Less than 1 g of toxin is required to cause 100,000 mean casualties (i.e., poisoned individuals), and 10 g poison the great majority of the 568,000 consumers."

NAS President Bruce Alberts convincingly explains in an editoral why in this case more knowledge, more widely dispersed, offers better protection from this type of attack. In most cases, secret science is not the way to protect Americans. Alberts writes:

It is important to recognize that publishing terrorism-related analysis in the open scientific literature can make the
nation safer in at least two different ways. First, science can make many important contributions to the design of our defenses. Because science advances through the combination of knowledge in unexpected ways, the discoveries of each individual scientist must be made available to a wide variety of other scientists, who can then either build upon or criticize them. This scientific free-for-all in the open literature leads to a refinement of the original findings that will, over time, always make any analysis much more reliable and better understood. In addition, new ideas to improve our defenses will often come from unanticipated sources that cannot be predicted in advance. In this case, for example, it may well be possible to find new methods for detecting the presence of botulinum toxin in milk that are much more reliable than the presently used assays, and so the speed, sensitivity, and specificity required for an optimal
assay should be broadcast as widely as possible.

There is a second advantage to openness. Protecting ourselves optimally against terrorist acts will require that both national and state governments, as well as the public, be cognizant of the real dangers. If the types of calculations and analyses in the Wein and Liu article are carried out only by government contractors in secrecy, not only are the many actors in the U.S. system who need to be alerted unlikely to be well informed, but also the federal government itself may become misled–either greatly overestimating or underestimating the seriousness of a particular danger relative to other concerns. The Wein and Liu article has been widely circulated in preprint form, generating a great deal of discussion. For this reason, we are already aware of scientists who plan to publish challenges to some of its conclusions. This type of give-and-take lies at the heart of scientific progress and is precisely why scientific analyses are made available in the open literature. Most importantly, this normal scientific process has proven to be highly
effective in establishing the broad base of reliable knowledge that the government requires for wise decision-making.

Alberts also points out, "All of the critical information in this article that could be useful to a terrorist … [is]immediately accessible on the World Wide Web through a simple Google search." In fact, just putting "botulinum" into Google finds a Journal of the American Medical Association article on how aerosolized botulinum toxin could be used as bioterror weapon at the top of the list.

One further note: I will be attending the first public meeting of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity on Thursday and Friday.