Last month, a prominent member of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), Dr. Michael T. Osterholm, wrote an internal memo criticizing the process in which the NSABB reversed its recommendation to disallow publication of two H5N1 transmissibility studies.
The Osterholm letter was addressed to Dr. Amy P. Patterson, National Institutes of Health (NIH) Associate Director for Science Policy, with copies distributed to the rest of the NSABB and to other NIH staff members close the process. The chief complaint in the Osterholm letter was the opinion that the meeting agenda, invited participants, and some content elements were biased towards creating a decision where the board would recommend full publication of the controversial bird flu studies.
The letter was eventually leaked and published in the journal ScienceInsider, adding to what was already a whirlwind of political and scientific debate on government oversight of “dual-use” research of concern. (See CIDRAP Director Letter to NSABB Leaked – April 16). The new controversy prompted further requests from the Senate for testimony on biosecurity oversight processes of federal agencies funding life science research.
A second leaked letter surfaced last week in the online scientific journal Nature, which published in full a lengthy response from Patterson to Osterholm. The letter was dated April 25, 2012 and contained a nearly point-by-point repudiation of the Osterholm complaints.
Patterson begins by asserting Osterholm might not have understood that the “clearly communicated” intent of the March 29-30 NSABB meeting was not to “reconsider” a previous decision recommending against publication of the studies, but rather to assess “revised” versions of the manuscripts in question.
Patterson goes on to counter allegations of a “one-sided” agenda by stating that a draft agenda was circulated to all NSABB members for feedback, none of which was provided by Osterholm prior to the meeting. “The agenda was not designed to produce any specific outcome other than a rigorous scientific discussion of the manuscripts and any dual use implications,” Patterson states.
Read the Patterson Letter in full at Nature (.pdf)