News / USA

US Officials Purge Biosafety Board in Midst of Anthrax Crisis

FILE - A scientist examines a package for anthrax spores.
FILE - A scientist examines a package for anthrax spores.
Reuters

Federal officials, amid the worst U.S. 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, first reported on Science magazine's website, came two days after federal health officials released details of an investigation of the mishandling of anthrax samples by scientists at the 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 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.

On Wednesday, a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee 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 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 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.”

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

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 biosafety issues.

Dr. Arturo Casadevall of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New 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 more 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 State University, who played a crucial role in the investigation 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.”

You May Like

Video Drug Use Rises in Afghanistan

Ninety percent of world’s heroin comes from Afghanistan More

Here's Your Chance to Live in a Deserted Shopping Mall

About one-third of the 1200 enclosed malls in the US are dead or dying. Here's what's being done with them. More

Video NASA: Big Antarctica Ice Shelf Is Disintegrating

US space agency’s new study indicates Larsen B shelf could break up in just a few years More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthroughi
X
May 22, 2015 10:23 AM
Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthrough

Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Europe Follows US Lead in Tackling ‘Conflict Minerals’

Metals mined from conflict zones in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo are often sold by warlords to buy weapons. This week European lawmakers voted to force manufacturers to prove that their supply chains are not inadvertently fueling conflicts and human rights abuses. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Class Tackles Questions of Race, Discrimination

Unrest in some U.S. cities is more than just a trending news item at Ladue Middle School in St. Louis, Missouri. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, it’s a focus of a multicultural studies class engaging students in wide-ranging discussions about racial tensions and police aggression.
Video

Video Mind-Controlled Prosthetics Are Getting Closer

Scientists and engineers are making substantial advances towards the ultimate goal in prosthetics – creation of limbs that can be controlled by the wearer’s mind. Thanks to sophisticated sensors capable of picking up the brain’s signals, an amputee in Iceland is literally bringing us one step closer to that goal. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Afghan Economy Sinks As Foreign Troops Depart

As international troops prepare to leave Afghanistan, and many foreign aid groups follow, Afghans are grappling with how the exodus will affect the country's fragile economy. Ayesha Tanzeem reports from the Afghan capital, Kabul.
Video

Video Poverty, Ignorance Force Underage Girls Into Marriage

The recent marriage of a 17-year old Chechen girl to a local police chief who was 30 years older and already had a wife caused an outcry in Russia and beyond. The bride was reportedly forced to marry and her parents were intimidated into giving their consent. The union spotlighted yet again the plight of many underage girls in developing countries. Zlatica Hoke reports poverty, ignorance and fear are behind the practice, especially in Asia and Africa.
Video

Video South Korea Marks Gwangju Uprising Anniversary

South Korea this week marked the 35th anniversary of a protest that turned deadly. The Gwangju Uprising is credited with starting the country’s democratic revolution after it was violently quelled by South Korea’s former military rulers. But as Jason Strother reports, some observers worry that democracy has recently been eroded.
Video

Video California’s Water System Not Created To Handle Current Drought

The drought in California is moving into its fourth year. While the state's governor is mandating a reduction in urban water use, most of the water used in California is for agriculture. But both city dwellers and farmers are feeling the impact of the drought. Some experts say the state’s water system was not created to handle long periods of drought. Elizabeth Lee reports from Ventura County, an agricultural region just northwest of Los Angeles.
Video

Video How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction

An international team of scientists has sequenced the complete genome of the woolly mammoth. Led by the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm, the work opens the door to recreate the huge herbivore, which last roamed the Earth 4,000 years ago. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble considers the science of de-extinction and its place on the planet
Video

Video Blind Boy Defines His Life with Music

Cole Moran was born blind. He also has cognitive delays and other birth defects. He has to learn everything by ear. Nevertheless, the 12-year-old has had an insatiable love for music since he was born. VOA’s June Soh introduces us to the young phenomenal harmonica player.

VOA Blogs