Man convicted of illegal possession of pufferfish toxin sentenced

Oct 11 2012
VERTIC Blog >> National Implementation Measures
Yasemin Balci, London
Two weeks ago, Mr E.B. from Illinois, United States, was sentenced to over seven and a half years in prison for possession of a toxin with intent to use it as a weapon. In Trust & Verify No. 136, we reported that he had been charged with acting in contravention of the 1989 Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act by ordering and receiving Tetrodotoxin (TTX), a highly deadly toxin, without a peaceful purpose.

By posing as a doctor and stating ‘marine antitoxic research’ as his purpose, Mr E.B. ordered 98 milligrams of TTX, which has no known antidote and is found naturally in pufferfish. The chemical distribution company where he placed his order became suspicious with the high amount of his order and notified the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Officers specifically trained for investigating offences relating to weapons of mass destruction examined his case and organized a special delivery of TTX by undercover agents who took him into custody after he had taken possession of the box.

TTX is a legally-controlled substance that appears on the US ‘Select Agents and Toxins List’, which requires persons who possess, use or transfer biological agents and toxins mentioned on the list to be registered with the Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). An exemption from such registration applies if the amount of TTX is less than 100 milligrams. This exemption, however, applies to amounts under the control of a principal investigator, treating physician or veterinarian, or commercial manufacturer or distributor. Since most purchases of TTX consist of only two milligrams and Mr E.B.'s exceeded the company’s single purchase maximum too, his order raised suspicion.

Control lists such as the US Select Agents and Toxins List are useful in preventing dangerous biological agents and toxins such as TTX from falling in the wrong hands. By adopting such lists in their legislation, states can control who can work with certain biological agents and toxins in their territory, what training they should have undertaken, and ensure that facilities housing these materials meet specific safety and security standards. This helps prevent both intentional and accidental release of biological agents and toxins and protect human, animal and plant health. For such lists to be effective over time, it can also be required by law to establish a review mechanism.

In the United States, the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002 regulates activities with certain dangerous biological agents and toxins. Sections 201 and 212(a)(2) of this Act require a biennial review and republication of the Select Agents and Toxins list. The US list dated back to October 2008, but following the third review process during which comments were invited from the public, new lists were published last Friday (See here for the list on animal and plant health and here for the list on public health).

A few viruses were added to the list (Chapare virus, Lujo virus, and SARS-associated coronavirus (SARS-CoV)) while some other agents were removed from it. Moreover, following President Obama’s Executive Order 13546 ‘Optimizing the Security of Biological Select Agents and Toxins in the United States’, those select agents and toxins that were considered to pose “the greatest risk of deliberate misuse with the most significant potential for mass casualties or devastating effects to the economy, critical infrastructure or public confidence” were designated as ‘Tier 1’agents. The risk analysis to establish Tier 1 agents was carried out by the Federal Experts Security Advisory Panel (FESAP) based on 20 criteria. Facilities housing Tier 1 agents will have to put new security measures in place, such as on-going personnel suitability assessments, security training for personnel, and a three-barrier physical protection system whereby one barrier must be continuously monitored to detect any circumventions of the access rules and the final one must limit access to authorized personnel only. The new Select Agents and Toxins List will be effective on 4 December 2012 while the new security requirements will become effective on 13 April 2013 to allow entities time to adopt the necessary measures.


Last changed: Aug 11 2015 at 1:18 PM