The threat seems almost laughable: who would think that Botox, the popular wrinkle-erasing drug, is a potential weapon of mass destruction? But it is.
Botox is a highly diluted solution of Clostridium botulinum toxin, with similar products manufactured by just eight legitimate pharmaceutical companies around the world. Given high prices and demand, it’s not surprising that counterfeit Botox is showing up on the world’s black market. Ordinarily that would be an issue for agencies such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the FBI. But spurred, in part, by the research of Ken Coleman, MBA ’89, the U.S. intelligence community worries that a terrorist group could buy botulinum toxin from an unscrupulous pirate lab and turn the drug into a terrifying weapon.
Although prescription Botox is safe, a speck of botulinum toxin the size of a grain of dust could kill a 150-pound adult. Furthermore, highly diluted toxin is sold on the internet and used in much of the world without prescription, creating a huge market for unlicensed labs to tap.
“This is an astounding development because for the first time it appears as though a Category A threat agent is easier to acquire than a gun, thus raising security issues never before encountered by the international security community,” Coleman and coauthor Raymond A. Zilinskas wrote in a research paper that gained widespread attention early this year.
Sponsored by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, Calif., where Coleman is a senior fellow, the project was well matched to Coleman’s training and professional interests in biology, toxicity, and business.
His interest in the toxic corners of microbiology dates back to his training in microbiology and molecular genetics at Trinity College Dublin, where he studied with Sir John Arbuthnott, an expert in infectious diseases. As a postdoctoral fellow and lecturer in 1984 at Harvard Medical School, Coleman was part of a committee to prevent bioterrorism, and though not a medical doctor, he led a project that involved cloning diphtheria toxin to make “magic bullets” to kill cancer cells.
“It was very controversial. The paranoid among us worried that it would lead to a new biological warfare agent,” he said. It didn’t, and the so-called magic bullet is being used to treat cancer patients today.
In 1987, Coleman, who is now 53, returned to student life, earning an MBA from Stanford.
Years later, he watched then Secretary of State Colin Powell at the United Nations make a case for war, claiming that Iraq had constructed a fleet of mobile biological weapons stations. “I knew immediately that they were not what they were claiming, and I realized this was an area for me to make a public service contribution.”
That chance came last year, when the nonproliferation center presented him with a list of research topics — including the Botox threat. “I could not have done the analysis [of the Botox issue] without the tools of the business school, such as market analysis and supply- and demand-side attributes,” he said.
He quickly realized that the size of the market, the relative simplicity of producing the toxin, and the ease of distribution via the internet made Botox an attractive target for counterfeiters and terrorists alike. It was also apparent to him that “no one in the government was taking the lead on this. It seemed to fall between the cracks of criminality and terrorism.”
By early this year, the work of Coleman and Zilinskas was noticed by reporters at the Washington Post, who tried to trace the f low of counterfeit Botox to labs in China. They didn’t find one — though Coleman is convinced that there are indeed pirate labs in China and elsewhere — but the article was picked up by news outlets around the world.
Coleman’s work raises an interesting question: Does publicizing this threat popularize the idea with terrorists? He thinks not. “We have a view of terrorists being unsophisticated,” he replied. “They are sophisticated and opportunistic. It is my hope that some debate on this issue will serve to raise awareness and lessen the threat.”
The U.S. government has taken notice, and Coleman has had discussions with a number of agencies. He can’t divulge details, but the formation of an inter-agency group to monitor the threat is likely. Researchers will conduct forensic analysis of counterfeit Botox with the goal of being able to trace any sample of botulinum toxin used in an attack back to the makers. This, Coleman said, “will act as a significant deterrent to any biological attack.”
He sees the threat as serious but nothing to lose sleep over. Terrorists would need to find a rogue lab and strike a deal; it’s unlikely that they could simply purchase undiluted toxin on the internet. While unsettling, the work on the threat meets one of Coleman’s personal goals: “finding a way to use my brainpower and experience to make a public contribution; I call it scientific philanthropy.”
by Bill Snyder
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