Article removed after US complains it could help terroristsBMJ 2005; 330 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.330.7505.1406-a (Published 16 June 2005) Cite this as: BMJ 2005;330:1406
Academy suppresses article after complaints it could help terroristsLondon
A paper written for Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has been pulled from publication after US government officials described it as a "road map for terrorists," wanting to contaminate the United States’ milk supply with biological weapons.
The paper, authored by Lawrence Wein, a professor and bioterrorism expert at Stanford University, pointed out security weaknesses in the milk distribution network. He recommended that the Food and Drug Administration tighten its guidelines on surveillance in transit, begin testing milk for toxins, and improve pasteurisation techniques.
The article was published online in late May in a password protected area of the National Academy of Science website that is normally used by journalists who wish to read papers before they are published. But when journalists called for comment, the FDA notified the federal government.
Stewart Simonson, assistant secretary of the US Department of Health and Human Services, wrote to the president of the academy, Dr Bruce Alberts, complaining that the paper provided "very detailed information on vulnerability nodes" in the milk supply chain, and "includes very precise information on the dosage of botulinum toxin needed to contaminate the milk supply to kill or injure large numbers of people."
"It seems clear on its face that publication of this manuscript could have very serious public health and national security consequences," Mr Simonson wrote.
The article has been removed from the academy’s website. A spokesman for the academy, Bill Kearney, said, "We agreed to delay publication after some people from [the Department of] Health and Human Services came down and explained their point of view. We have yet to make a final decision on whether to publish at a later date." He added, "We’ve had security concerns crop up over our National Research Council work before, but never over an article contributed to [Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.]"
A spokesman for the Health and Human Services department, Marc Wolfson, said he believed that it was the first time his department had asked a journal to withhold a health science paper for national security reasons. "This was a voluntary decision, not censorship," he said. "If they had refused, we would have had no way to enforce it."
The US government first expressed concern about published bioterrorism research in 2002, when the White House asked the American Society for Microbiology to limit potentially dangerous information in its 11 journals. The following year, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Science, and Nature published a joint statement by their editors calling for vigilance and personal responsibility over potentially dangerous research.
Professor Wein, the author of the disputed article, also wrote an editorial in the New York Times on vulnerabilities in the milk supply on (30 May, p A15). But Mr Wolfson said that the government was not concerned about that, as "it lacks the details available in the scientific paper."
He said that Professor Wein had voluntarily shown a draft of his article to department officials last autumn, and agreed to show it to them again before publication. "That was the last we heard from him before it cropped up on the website," said Mr Wolfson. Professor Wein told the BMJ, "I can’t say anything about this until we know the final decision."
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