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Officials fear toxic ingredient in Botox could become terrorist tool

Vials of black-market Botox like this one are available the world over through the Internet.
Vials of black-market Botox like this one are available the world over through the Internet. (Tim Chapman/miami Herald Via Ap)
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Terrorists, on the other hand, have long been drawn to the toxin as a way to inflict widespread casualties through contamination of food or water supplies. The Japanese doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo experimented with a botulinum weapon in the early 1990s. An al-Qaeda training manual discovered in 2001 advocated the use of botulinum toxin in terrorist attacks.

None of the previous efforts succeeded. Aum Shinrikyo managed to cultivate a lethal strain of the toxin-producing bacterium, but stumbled when it tried to convert the poison into an aerosol form. Al-Qaeda's known bioweapons efforts were hampered by rudimentary lab equipment and limited access to lethal strains.

All of those problems can now be bypassed at a time when illicit networks are making the toxin for profit, said Coleman, the co-author of the study.

"There are no major obstacles," he said. "It's not that hard to acquire the bacterial strains. But you don't even have to make it. You can buy it from existing manufacturers. And you can buy it in sufficient quantity to cause widespread harm."

Tracking the sources

The case of the Russian counterfeiter offers a glimpse into an illegal network of fake Botox suppliers that operates largely in the shadows.

Anti-wrinkle drugs are exceptionally popular in Russia and Eastern Europe, where less stringent consumer laws allow their distribution by non-physicians, including operators of beauty salons. But commercial botulinum toxin is costly, and many users have flocked to vendors who offer cheaper substitutes, said Marina Voronova, until recently a Russia-based bioweapons expert who has investigated counterfeit networks in the former Soviet Union.

Voronova, who now works for the nonprofit environmental group Global Green, said the Rakhman case came to light because of the man's success in undercutting licensed suppliers in St. Petersburg's salon circuit -- and also because he was among a very few vendors to make personal sales calls in an industry that mostly operates in cyberspace. Rakhman built up a brisk trade simply by walking into upscale shops and offering to sell Botox at a deep discount, she said.

"He was coming to St. Petersburg with a suitcase full of vials," said Voronova, who learned details of Rakhman's sales pitch in interviews with local officials. Rakhman took regular flights from Chechnya and seemed to have unlimited supply. When an undercover investigator asked how many doses he could deliver, he replied: "As many as you want," Voronova said, citing an account given to her by a Russian investigator.

Rakhman abruptly halted his St. Petersburg trips when local authorities began closing in, and Russian investigators were never able to determine where his counterfeit Botox was manufactured. Zilinskas and Coleman, in their study, concluded that much of the fake Botox sold over the Internet originated in China, a country with a history of producing knockoff versions of drugs and cosmetic products sold under patent in the West. But they noted that the toxin could be made in a garage-size laboratory almost anywhere, including Chechnya, notorious for black-market smuggling and a home-grown Islamic insurgency.

China recently acknowledged the seriousness of Botox counterfeiting domestically when it announced it was shutting down a factory in Shanxi province accused of making a copycat version of the drug. That crackdown came several months after Allergan, the chief U.S. manufacturer of commercial Botox, formally complained to Beijing that Chinese manufacturers were violating Allergan's patent protections.

Allergan officials say they are continuing to work with China to identify bogus manufacturers, but they also acknowledge that some producers are outlaws who hide from Chinese authorities by frequently changing their names and business addresses.

"There are organized criminal networks, and they act as registered agents for one another," said Allergan spokeswoman Caroline Van Hove.

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