Bioweapon fears over new strain of botulism found in US

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 December, 2013, 12:30am
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 December, 2013, 12:30am


US health researchers have discovered the first new strain of botulism in four decades, but decided to withhold publishing the genetic code because of bioterrorism concerns.

An infant fell ill with botulism earlier this year but survived, the California state Department of Public Health reported. No other details were made public.

Researchers published the case in the Journal of Infectious Diseases in October, but did not include the genetic sequence. The decision was made after talks with the US government, said lead researcher Stephen Arnon.

There is no treatment for the new botulism strain yet, and there are concerns that rogue groups could use information about the genetic code to develop a bioweapon.

"The recommendations from the federal government were clear on the potential risks of publishing the gene sequence," Arnon said.

"There was agreement among all involved in the discussions that it would be possible to publish this information to achieve the scientific and public health benefits of sharing the finding while safeguarding national security."

Botulism, a rare but serious illness that can lead to paralysis, is caused by a nerve toxin produced by bacteria. About 145 cases of botulism are reported in the US every year and about 65 per cent are infant botulism, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

The state Department of Public Health is among several agencies around the country responsible for developing treatments for botulism strains. It usually takes one to two years to develop an antitoxin.

Jonathan Eisen, a microbiologist at the University of California, Davis, who was part of a team that sequenced anthrax in 2001, said: "This is pretty unusual - for them to flag something like this and have some internal review and discussions with the powers that be and decide to black out the section of the genome corresponding to that toxin."