Roundtable: Threats of Botulinum Toxin

This Tuesday afternoon, Global Green USA hosted a roundtable discussion about security threats posed by illicit manufacturers and distributors of botulinum toxin, the most poisonous substance on Earth, which is the active ingredient of Botox. Dr. Raymond Zilinskas, Director of the Chemical and Biological Weapons Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies, stressed that legal Botox and similar products have many health and cosmetic benefits and pose no threat to international security. What his study found alarming was the extent of the counterfeit botulinum toxin products market and the apparent willingness of their producers to sell bulk botulinum toxin to anyone with a credit card, including potentially violent non-state actors and individuals.

Dr. Zilinskas’ study discovered many unlicensed companies selling counterfeit Botox look-alike products online and that the majority of them are based in Asia. These companies offer to provide “any quantity” of the product that customers want, regardless of who the customer is. Thus it is possible that ill willed persons or groups may approach illegal producers, order botulinum toxin in bulk, and contaminate foods or beverages to cause mass casualties. Theoretically, just one gram of this toxin could be lethal to about 14,000 people if ingested or 1.25 million people if inhaled.

In general, one of the difficulties in shutting down the enormous world-wide trade of illicit pharmaceuticals is the lack of consensus among nations on how to pursue their distributers. Most fake drugs are sold online, which makes it difficult to track down their producers and distributors. Further, illicit drug manufacturers are usually located in countries that lack the appropriate enforcement measures to track them down and then successfully prosecute them. However, producers of by far most counterfeit drugs pose no threats to security, which is not the case with illicitly produce botulinum toxin.

According to Dr. Zilinskas, governments should recognize that the illicit botulinum toxin market presents

more than just a copyright and intellectual theft problem and should act in unison to pursue the criminals responsible for the toxin’s production and distribution. Although extremists have so far preferred to use conventional weapons and explosives, Dr. Zilinskas is concerned that this situation may change as unregulated, illicit botulinum toxin becomes ever more easily available for purchase online.

For more information on the subject, please see the article by Ken Coleman and Raymond Zilinskas “Fake Botox, Real Threat,” in the June 2010 issue of Scientific American.