It sounds like something out of Mission: Impossible. The laboratory in Irvine, California, is protected by locked door after locked door, glass barriers, double-paned windows, metal-enclosed workstations, video surveillance, and 24-hour guards. And a waiver lets visitors know they risk complete paralysis just by entering. At the center of all this security? A drug to make wrinkles disappear. In fairness, Botox actually has a number of approved medical uses beyond cosmetics; it can treat migraines, muscle spasms, and perhaps soon depression, Bloomberg reports in an in-depth look at the $2.8 billion Botox empire—built on one of the deadliest known toxins in the world—and the intense measures taken to protect that empire—and humanity.
Botox is made from a toxin purified from Clostridium botulinum. A small amount of the toxin can suffocate a person, and a study found just one crystallized gram could kill more than a million people if "evenly dispersed and inhaled." To prevent any of the toxin from falling into the wrong hands and becoming weaponized, Botox-maker Allergan and the US government have shrouded the drug in secrecy. Only a handful of company and government officials know where Allergan's stash of the toxin is located; shipments to the Irvine lab and a factory in Ireland (where even the Allergan CEO doesn't have full security clearance) happen at unknown intervals by unknown methods; and the Botox recipe is "a trade secret" like that for Coca-Cola. This "government-assisted operational secrecy" has given Allergan a 90% share of the medical neurotoxin market. Read the full story here. (Read more Longform stories.)