BioterrorismInsider: H5N1 studies publication vote biased, unbalanced

Published 16 April 2012

In late March, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) reversed its earlier recommendation, made in December 2011, against full publication of two studies describing lab-modified H5N1 viruses with increased transmissibility in mammals; the recommendation was based on fears that the findings would help terrorist design effective bioweapons; a NSABB board member says that the March reversal of the December recommendation was the result of a bias toward finding a solution that was more about getting the government out of the current dilemma than about a careful risk-benefit analysis

CIDRAP News, the publication of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP), reports that a member of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), in a leaked letter (the letter was posted on the Science magazine site – also see Science’s 13 April article, “A Flawed Flu Papers Process?”), has charged that federal officials planned the board’s meeting in late March in a way designed to lead the board to reverse its earlier recommendation against full publication of two studies describing lab-modified H5N1 viruses with increased transmissibility in mammals.

The letter was written by board member Michael T. Osterholm, Ph.D., MPH, director of CIDRAP.

Osterholm argues that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) officials who planned the meeting set up the board to change its earlier recommendation and thereby “kick the can down the road” concerning the science policy issues at stake. He said he was expressing only his own views.

The board was concerned with possible misuse of the findings – especially by terrorists. As a result, the NSABB recommended in December that the details of studies led by Ron Fouchier, Ph.D., of Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands (his study was scheduled for publication in Science), and Yoshihiro Kawaoka, DVM, Ph.D., of the University of Wisconsin (whose paper was to be published by Nature), should be withheld from publication.

After the authors provided new information about their findings, the NSABB was reconvened on 29 and 30 March. CIDRAP News notes that at that point the board voted 12 to 6 to recommend that the full details of Fouchier’s study should be published. The panel was unanimous in recommending full publication of Kawaoka’s paper (see “NSABB reverses recommendation on H5N1 studies,” CIDRAP News, 30 March 2012). The studies are expected to be published in Science and Nature, respectively.

Osterholm addressed his 6-page letter to Amy P. Patterson, MD, NIH associate director for science policy. In addition, according to the letter, he shared it with the rest of the NSABB and with other NIH staff members who support the board’s work. He said he voted for full publication of the Kawaoka paper but voted against the publication of Fouchier’s study.

I believe that the agenda and speakers for the March 29 and 30th NSABB meeting as determined by the OBA [NIH Office of Biotechnology Activities] was designed to produce the outcome that occurred,”