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

Obama: Alaskans Feel Signs of Climate Change

They're seeing bigger storm surges as sea ice melts, more wildfires, erosion of glaciers, shorelines More

1855 Slave Brochure Starkly Details Sale of Black Americans

Document lists entire families that were up for sale in New Orleans, offering graphic insight into the slavery trade More

Katrina Brought Enduring Changes to New Orleans

The city’s recovery is the result of the people and culture the city is famous for, as well as newcomers and start-up industries More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalatesi
X
August 27, 2015 2:08 AM
Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Is China's Economic Data Accurate?

Some investors say China's wild stock market gyrations have been made worse by worries about the reliability of that nation's economic data. And some critics say the reports can mislead investors by painting an unrealistically-strong picture of the economy. A key China scholar says Beijing is not fudging ((manipulating)) the numbers, but that the economy is evolving quickly from smoke-stack industries to services, and the ways of tracking new economic activity are falling behind the change. V
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Shipping Containers Provide Experimental Housing

Housing prices around the San Francisco Bay area are out of reach for many people, so some young entrepreneurs, artists and tech industry workers are creating their own houses using converted shipping containers. But as VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports from Oakland, the effort requires ingenuity and dealing with restrictive local laws.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video Technique May Eliminate Drill-and-Fill Dental Care

Many people dread visiting dentists because they're afraid of drills. Now, however, a technology developed by a British firm promises to eliminate the need for mechanical cleaning of dental cavities by speeding a natural process of tooth repair. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.
Video

Video French Experiment in Integrating Roma Under Threat

Plans to destroy France’s oldest slum have sparked an outcry on the part of its Roma residents. As Lisa Bryant reports from the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, rights groups argue the community is a fledgling experiment on integrating Roma who are often outcasts in many parts of Europe.
Video

Video Kenyans Turn to Agriculture for Business

Each year Kenyan universities continue to churn out graduates for the job market despite the already existing high rate of unemployment among youth in the country. Some of these young men and women have realized that agriculture can be as rewarding as any other business or job, and they are resorting to agribusiness in large numbers as a way of tackling unemployment. Rael Ombuor reports for VOA.
Video

Video First Women Graduate Elite Army Ranger School

Two women are making history for the U.S. Army by proving they are among the toughest of the tough. VOA's Carla Babb reports from Fort Benning, Georgia as 94 men and those two women rise as graduates of the difficult Ranger school.

VOA Blogs