IRA FLATOW, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.
A little bit later in the hour, a look at the ITER fusion experiment. And the author of a new book about the invention of the microchip.
But first, the strange case of a research paper that was published, then withdrawn at the request of the government, citing security reasons, only to show up as an op-ed piece in The New York Times by the author a few days later. And then this week, after about a month's delay, the paper was published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, following an additional review of its contents.
Bruce Alberts, president of the academy, said in an editorial accompanying the paper that after editors reviewed it, they decided that there was nothing in the paper that could not be found on the Internet with a simple Google search. The topic of the paper apparently made it a victim of security censorship in this post-9/11 world. The topic: how to exploit weaknesses in the country's milk supply so that terrorists might poison the milk with a toxin that causes botulism.
Should the paper have been published or pulled and just how safe is our milk supply anyway? Joining me now is one of the paper's authors, Larry Wein. He is the Holden Professor of Management Science in the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University in Stanford, California.
Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.
Dr. LARRY WEIN (Stanford University): Thank you, Ira.
FLATOW: Looks like we have two stories here, one about the paper that you published and one about the paper that you published, and...
Dr. WEIN: Right.
FLATOW: ...what happened to it. Let's talk about the first one. Tell us about the scenario that you published in the paper.
Dr. WEIN: Well, a terrorist would insert some botulinum toxin into the upstream into the dairy supply chain. For example, 10 grams of toxin; that's in a two-and-a-half-gallon jug of an acid-mud mixture. This toxin would end up in a silo at a dairy processing facility that's about 50,000 gallons in size; about a hundred or a hundred fifty thousand gallons of milk would contain the toxin. Much of the toxin would be inactivated during the heat pasteurization process. Then all of this contaminated milk would rapidly move through the supply chain. You'd have about a half a million people consuming this milk, and depending on how quickly we figured out what was going on, in any ca--we, optimistically, assume within 24 hours of the first symptoms, we would completely halt consumption, and you'd end up with several hundred thousand poisoned people, and about half of them would die.
FLATOW: And you...
Dr. WEIN: So in an...
FLATOW: Yeah, go ahead.
Dr. WEIN: So the main finding of the paper, really, is when you combine the deadliest substance known to humans, which is botulinum toxin, with the large-scale production and storage and the rapid distribution and consumption of milk, you get a truly frightening scenario.
FLATOW: And what makes it frightening is, in the scenario, how easily anybody at any point along that milk chain could insert the toxin.
Dr. WEIN: Right. By law, the tanks at the farm where--after the milk is taken out of the cows, it's put into a tank, and the tank trucks, which take the milk from the farms to the processing facility--these don't have to be locked. There's voluntary FDA guidelines. And one of my main recommendations is that this should be law, because after all, if a dairy facility in the hands of a terrorist could be as dangerous as a nuclear or a chemical facility, then voluntary guidelines are not commensurate with the severity of the threat. And, indeed, in the chemical industry now, we have voluntary guidelines, and we find that one out of every 15 chemical facilities are complying with these guidelines because it's really not in their financial interests to do so.
FLATOW: And you said that there were very--actually very simple and easy and cheap things that could be done to prevent the spread of it, even it should become contam...
Dr. WEIN: You mean to mitigate or prevent--I'm sorry. Go ahead.
FLATOW: Even if the toxin should be getting into the tankers where they tank up with the milk, that they could be easily checked on their way out of the factory, for example.
Dr. WEIN: Well, we have three recommendations. The first one I mentioned about making the guidelines law. The second one is to improve the pasteurization process of the milk or intensify it so that it inactivates more toxin. And to the government and dairy industry's great credit, they have done so. This didn't become publicly available knowledge until Bruce Alberts' editorial. So this not only makes the milk directly safer, but having this knowledge out there could deter a future attack of this kind. And the third and really the main recommendation we're making is that there is a 15-minute immunomagnetic-electrochemiluminescent test--that is, you know, commercially available that could test each truck while the truck is already waiting for 45 minutes for its antibiotic residue test, so this could pretty much take this threat off the table for a cost of maybe 1 or 2 cents per gallon of milk, so less than 1 percent of the cost of milk.
FLATOW: And has any action been following these recommendations?
Dr. WEIN: No. You know, this--well, as soon as--when I briefed the government last fall, no one in the room was aware of this test, and everyone thought that the only commercially available tests available were ELISA tests, which took three or four hours, which really wasn't practical. So about seven weeks ago, I found out about this test, I immediately e-mailed Assistant Secretary Simonson and telling him about it. He wrote back and said, `Thank you, Larry. Very interesting.' This morning, I called up a person at this company, BioVeris, and asked them, you know, `Has the government been in touch with you about this?' and they said, `No, they have not.'
FLATOW: So before you actually published this, you did go around and tell people about this.
Dr. WEIN: Yeah. Last September 23rd, I briefed maybe 40 or so people. Assistant Secretary Simonson was there, people from the White House, Department of Homeland Security, dairy industry, FBI and so forth. And so we did have, you know, a two-hour meeting where I briefed and we had discussions. And, indeed, at that time, I realized the dairy industry was nervous about this paper being published. I didn't realize the government shared their concerns. But a month later, I was contacted by Assistant Secretary Simonson's office saying they knew--they had heard I had a paper, `We had concerns about it. Could we see it and make suggestions?' and I said, `Sure,' and I e-mailed them the paper right away and said, `I'd be happy to work with you to come up with something that is informative without raising national security concerns,' and they e-mailed back, said, `Thanks, we'll get back to you next week,' but they never got back to me.
FLATOW: So they never got back to you, so you went ahead and published the paper. And then what happened?
Dr. WEIN: Right. Well, at that time, when I didn't hear from them, I thought their main concern was that I would put something in the paper, either data or information that's not in the public domain. And, of course, I didn't do that. When I didn't hear back from them, I assumed they were OK with the paper, but that was presumptuous thinking, so, you know, they did ask PNAS to pull the paper. I think PNAS behaved appropriately and professionally all the way around. I think it was correct of them to delay the publication of the paper and hear the government out. After all, if the paper was, indeed, a road map for terrorists, it would be more important not to have that out there, and it's not a big deal to delay the publication of a scientific paper by a few weeks.
FLATOW: So even after the paper was pulled, though, you had this op-ed piece in The New York Times that basically...
Dr. WEIN: Right. Well, the...
FLATOW: ...laid out the same thing that was in the paper.
Dr. WEIN: Right. So the sequence didn't actually happen that way. The op-ed was written before and was really accepted by The New York Times before the government asked PNAS to pull the paper. I--main reason for writing the op-ed was because I heard about this new 45-minute--this new 15-minute test that I didn't know about when I wrote the paper, and so I wanted--you know, that was kind of the main recommendation of the paper, so that's why I submitted it.
FLATOW: And so then the National Academy of Sciences looks at the paper, says--Bruce Alberts writes something accompanying the publication and says, `You know, this is nothing really new. You could just get all this stuff on the Internet anyhow.'
Dr. WEIN: Right. And...
FLATOW: Yeah. And just--they then...
Dr. WEIN: Well, more importantly, he also claimed--you know, said that it's not a road map for terrorists...
Dr. WEIN: ...which seemed to be the government's main complaint, and that our estimate for the amount of toxin required to cause mass casualties is so imprecise as not to be helpful to terrorists.
FLATOW: Imprecise w...
Dr. WEIN: So that did sur...
Dr. WEIN: Oh, excuse me.
FLATOW: No, I'm sorry. Go ahead.
Dr. WEIN: Well, it did surprise me because the other two main catastrophic bioterror threats are anthrax and smallpox, and I was the co-author of the first detailed mathematical studies of these topics also. They also appeared in PNAS. And those papers did not receive this kind of response. Indeed, the anthrax paper--this same group of people I briefed--Assistant Secretary Simonson's office--that was before he was on board, and they actually hired me to do further work on the anthrax vaccine. And that paper's just as detailed. It has a figure of the number of casualties vs. the number of anthrax spores released. So I still am kind of puzzled as--you know, why the response on this one vs. the other papers.
FLATOW: Are you still waiting to hear from the government?
Dr. WEIN: Well, yeah, they haven't been in contact with me in the last month.
FLATOW: Are you waiting for someone to sit up and say, `Hey, you know, this guy's got something here. Maybe we should have this 15-minute test'?
Dr. WEIN: You know, it's a tricky business because, you know, whether we need the test or not depends on how good the new pasteurization formula is, and that is not publicly available information and shouldn't be, as Bruce Alberts said in his editorial, because that could help be a road map for terrorists. So, in fact, I e-mailed the government the morning the paper came out earlier this week, and the only way I can kind of say it in public is as an equation, so maybe if your radio listeners aren't driving your car, you can just write down this little equation in terms of two unknowns, X and Y.
So let Y be on the left-hand side. Y is less than a fraction with one in the numerator and 30,000 times X in the denominator. Y is the fraction of toxin that survives the pasteurization process. So if the pasteurization kills 99 percent of it, then Y would be 0.01. And X is also not in the public domain, which is a factor that says the capabilities of the terrorists to concentrate the toxin in this acid-mud mixture, of what's the additional factor on top of what I assume, using 1950s and '60s technologies, of four grams per gallon. So, for example, if they could do 40 grams per gallon vs. four grams a gallon, X should be 10. And without...
FLATOW: So that's 40-year-old technology that you used, where they might be much better at making the toxin now.
Dr. WEIN: Well, if you had, you know, sophisticated equipment and sophisticated people. So this is something I think the government has a handle on what X is. It's not in the public domain. I'm not going to say what it is. The government certainly knows what Y is, and I'm not going to say that. But I will say that if Y is less than 1 over 30,000 times X, then the milk is safe enough. And if Y is considerably bigger than 1 over 30,000 X, the milk is not safe enough, and we should seriously consider putting in in-line testing at a cost of a few cents per gallon.
FLATOW: Well, if anybody in the government missed that, we have a podcast of this broadcast; they can listen to it and get those numbers later on. It seems--silly, I was going to say. It's interesting that you have to get those numbers out to the government by talking to us on the radio.
Dr. WEIN: Right. Well, I e-mailed to them directly this information earlier in the week. I haven't heard anything back.
FLATOW: Right. Right.
Dr. WEIN: But of course, I did--someone showed me a Web site, I think yesterday, a government Web site that said something like, `Well, with our new pasteurization formula, the Wein scenario is impossible.'
FLATOW: All right. Well, we'll find out. Dr. Wein, thank you for taking time to talk with us, and good luck to you. We'll keep abreast of this.
Dr. WEIN: OK. Thank you, Ira.
FLATOW: Larry Wein is the Paul Holden Professor of Management Science at Graduate School of Business at Stanford University.
We're going to take a short break, and when we come back, we're going to talk about nuclear fusion and a new test reactor, one by France. So stay with us. We'll be right back.
I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.
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