U.S. officials purge biosafety board in midst of anthrax crisis




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BY SHARON BEGLEY AND DAVID MORGAN

YORK/WASHINGTON – Federal , amid worst U.S. biosafety in years, have dismissed 11 eminent scientists a 23-member panel that advises government on how and whether research on dangerous pathogens be conducted.

purged members were informed that their service was no longer needed via an email on Sunday night Mary Groesch, executive director of National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB). Two of dismissed members told Reuters that the notice came without warning. The panel is overseen by the National Institutes of Health.

action, first reported on Science magazine’s website, came two days after federal health released details of an of mishandling of anthrax samples by scientists at U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

That probe turned up numerous safety breaches at CDC, igniting concerns about how scientists at the agency and nationwide handle dangerous microbes. In one newly disclosed incident, CDC scientists contaminated samples of low-pathogenic viruses with a highly pathogenic strain and in March shipped them to a Department of Agriculture lab, where the viruses promptly killed all the chickens exposed to them.

On Wednesday, a subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on the CDC’s biosafety lapses.

“Add these to the long list of questions we have about how biosecurity is being managed,” said Committee Chairman Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican. “Why hasn’t the panel met in years, and why is now the time to dismiss nearly half the experts on this panel tasked with advising the administration on biosecurity?”

In the Sunday night email NIH, which was reviewed by Reuters, Groesch wrote that she “wanted to tell you that a slate of NSABB members has been approved as your replacements, and thus your service on the board is ending.”

“This may come as welcome news!” she wrote, adding that the departing members “will be missed.”

An NIH spokeswoman said in a statement on Tuesday that “it is routine for federal advisory committees to rotate their membership over time so that fresh and diverse perspectives can be brought to bear,” and that the dismissed scientists’ terms “had been renewed several times.”
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One of the dismissed members, Michael Imperiale of the of Michigan, tweeted that it was a “bizarre time to eliminate all institutional memory.”

The biosecurity board does not approve particular experiments but offers advice on, among things, oversight of “dual use” studies, meaning research that could be used for biowarfare or bioterrorism as well as for legitimate purposes.

In 2012, for instance, the board recommended that details of experiments on an especially deadly form of avian influenza, H5N1, not be published. They feared the information could be used to create a strain that, unlike the natural form, is highly transmissible between infected people.

At the time, the board’s concerns led to a 60-day self-imposed moratorium on NIH-funded projects on H5N1.

One of the dismissed board members expressed surprise that the purge included virtually all of the people with experience of the H5N1 debate and included experts known for communicating openly with fellow scientists and the public on biosafety .

Dr. Arturo Casadevall of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in York, for instance, co-authored a 2012 editorial in the journal of the American Society for Microbiology on the H5N1 debate, calling for “a clear scientific rationale” for studies that enable pathogens to be deadly or contagious than they are in nature. Casadevall was dismissed from the advisory board on Sunday night.

Also dismissed was microbiologist Paul Keim of Northern Arizona , who played a crucial role in the of the 2001 anthrax attacks that killed five people and infected another 17. Keim’s DNA analysis of the anthrax mailed to U.S. senators and news organizations allowed investigators to trace the bacteria to an Army lab in Maryland.

“I fell over in my seat,” Scott Becker, executive director of the Association of Public Health Laboratories, said of the advisory board dismissals. Given the CDC’s recent biosafety missteps, “this seems to not be the time to make major changes.” (Reuters)[eap_ad_3]