On the heels of several mishaps involving deadly pathogens, U.S. officials are reconvening an expert advisory panel that hasn’t met in nearly 2 years. But the government has also dismissed 11 of the original members of the 23-person panel, called the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB).
“We had no inkling it was going to happen this way,” says Paul Keim, a pathogen genomics researcher at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff who formerly chaired NSABB and has been on the panel since it was formed in 2005. The 11 members learned they were being dismissed Sunday evening in an e-mail from the board’s executive director, Mary Groesch, who works at the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), NSABB’s overseer. The e-mail prompted this tweet from NSABB member Michael Imperiale of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor: “#NIH just gave remaining inaugural NSABB members pink sheets. Bizarre time to eliminate all institutional memory.”
The e-mail, which ScienceInsider obtained, cheerily informs Imperiale, Keim, and the other original NSABB members that the board will be reconvening in the fall without them. “I wanted to tell you that a new slate of NSABB members has been approved as your replacements, and thus your service on the board is ending,” Groesch wrote. “Since you have all been so gracious as to extend your service for several years beyond your initial term, this may come as welcome news!”
NSABB advises and guides the U.S. government about “dual use” research that involves biological agents that could be used as bioweapons. In 2011, it became embroiled in heated debates about “gain-of-function” experiments with the deadly avian influenza virus H5N1 that made it more transmissible in mammals. Last week, Tom Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, held an unusual press conference to discuss three separate, recent mistakes involving lab safety with smallpox, influenza, and anthrax. He said such breaches “should never happen.”
Original board member Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, said he had expected to serve until sometime in 2015. “I don't know why they do or don’t do things at the NSABB,” Osterholm told ScienceInsider. “I gave up some time ago trying to predict that.” The board has 12 other members who apparently are continuing.
An NIH representative said: "It is routine for federal advisory committees to rotate their membership over time so that fresh and diverse perspectives can be brought to bear on the committee’s deliberations. Typically, only a portion of the board is rotated off at a time, so that the NSABB has members with 'institutional memory,' as well as individuals with new perspectives. Under special circumstances, membership terms can be extended, though they cannot be extended indefinitely. The terms of the individuals who received notification that their service on the NSABB had come to an end, had been renewed several times. The last time member terms were extended, those extensions were to last until replacement members could be found up until 2015, but not necessarily extending to that date, if less time was required for replacement members to be appointed. … The NSABB roster including new members will be publicly available prior to the next NSABB meeting."
NSABB last met in November 2012, and Osterholm said his last contact with NIH about the panel was in the spring of 2013. “We got one single e-mail saying NSABB had re-upped its charter,” Osterholm says. “That’s the only communication we had in 2 years at a time when the issues we’ve been confronting have been front and center. I don’t understand it.”
Arturo Casadevall of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in The Bronx, New York, says he expected to be replaced, but not so abruptly. The real surprise, he says, “is that all the members who have been through the H5N1 debates have been replaced at the same time” and that the news came on a Sunday evening “right after a week of all these headlines.” He adds that some of the remaining members “are very experienced.”
Keim says the newly reconstituted NSABB has its work cut out for it. "I hope that the U.S. government effectively uses the NSABB to address the shortcomings associated with the three incidents," he says.
With reporting by Jocelyn Kaiser.
*Update, 15 July, 2:50 p.m.: This article has been updated to include a response from NIH.