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A recent paper in the Journal of Infectious Diseases, which reports the discovery of a new botulinum toxin, has been censored:

Because no antitoxins as yet have been developed to counteract the novel C. Botulinum toxin, the authors had detailed consultations with representatives from numerous appropriate US government agencies.

The team sequenced the bacterial DNA corresponding to the toxin, but did not publish it.

I can understand the reasoning, and see how it might make sense, but I wondered: in such a case, what are guidelines that should be followed? The editors indicate consultations with governmental agencies, but I think the government might in some case be overly eager to censor data that should, from an ethical and moral point of view, be disseminated.

So, without turning this into a political question: what are guidelines (written rules as well as unwritten moral standards) that an author, reviewer or editor should follow concerning potential public safety issues? I looked for information on the COPE website, but could not really find anything relevant.

  • A former professor of mine, who worked with Trypanosomes, once told us that there was an under-the-table agreement between researchers that a certain pathogenic mechanism must not be investigated. I remember finding the fact that this was done and that it worked very intriguing. – Eekhoorn Oct 19 '13 at 9:09
  • @biologue: how do you know that it worked, i.e. the mechanism wasn't investigated as opposed to investigations were not published (= in terms of public safety: a small group of people has the monopoly of this knowledge)? – cbeleites unhappy with SX Oct 19 '13 at 15:42
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This is a rising bioethics topic in the area of biosecurity and dual-use developments. Last year there was controversy with H5N1 and censorship.

There is no set policy, though they are being devolped. Most recently there is the United States Government Policy for Institutional Oversight of Life Sciences Dual Use Research of Concern

The IAP Statement On Biosecurity principles state:

Awareness. Scientists have an obligation to do no harm. They should always take into consideration the reasonably foreseeable consequences of their own activities. They should therefore:

  • always bear in mind the potential consequences – possibly harmful – of their research and recognize that individual good conscience does not justify ignoring the possible misuse of their scientific endeavour;
  • refuse to undertake research that has only harmful consequences for humankind.

The US NIH Office of Biotechnology Activities is often consulted for such research concerns and has a report Enhancing Responsible Science Considerations for the Development and Dissemination of Codes of Conduct for Dual Use Research and has a series of recommendations.

The WHO Laboratory Biosafety Manual does not address publication restrictions/censorship.

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    I'm wondering if the paper in question did actually comply even with the most basic of those thoughts: if the public shouldn't know of this new toxin until antibodies are available (obviously a terrorism concern rather than about canned meat), then why not wait with the publication of the whole business? IMHO with the publication now they advertise that they have a new type of toxin, and even say they have the sequence. They just won't tell the sequence publicly until they also have an antigen. So in addition to an "ad" to the terrorist world, trustworthy labs who'd work on an antibody ... – cbeleites unhappy with SX Oct 19 '13 at 15:28
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    ... don't get information they need. To me it possibly has a bit of a smell of eating your publication pie and keeping it. If they cooperate behind the scenes with other labs on the antibody, then why publish already now? Priority date could maybe be established by some notarial act, but IMHO if the safety concern it that large, priority dates or an earlier publication shouldn't compromise it. That being said, I'm not sure that a terrorist wouldn't have an easier go with a "normal" C. botulinum strain, 15% mortality is far less than 90%, but probably still enough for terror purposes. – cbeleites unhappy with SX Oct 19 '13 at 15:33

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