Officials purge safety board after anthrax crisis

New York - Federal officials, amid the worst US biosafety crisis in years, have dismissed 11 eminent scientists from a 23-member panel that advises the government on how and whether research on dangerous pathogens should be conducted.

The purged members were informed that their service was no longer needed via an email on Sunday night from Mary Groesch, executive director of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB).

Two of the dismissed members told Reuters that the notice came without warning. The panel is overseen by the National Institutes of Health.

The action came two days after federal health officials released details of an investigation of the mishandling of anthrax samples by scientists at the US Centres 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 bird flu 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.

'Bizarre time'

On Wednesday, a US House of Representatives subcommittee is scheduled to hold a hearing on the CDC's bio safety lapses.

"Add these to the long list of questions we have about how biosecurity is being managed", said Representative Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican who will chair the hearing.

"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 from NIH, which was reviewed by Reuters, Groesch wrote that she "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."

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

An NIH spokesperson 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."

One of the dismissed members, Michael Imperiale of the University of Michigan, tweeted that it was a "bizarre time to eliminate all institutional memory".

Anthrax
An electronmicrograph of anthrax. (File, AP)

The biosecurity board does not approve particular experiments but offers policy advice on, among other 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 bio safety issues.
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