NSABB board member claims bias in H5N1 avian flu case

A National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity member recently claimed that the decision on the fate of two controversial research papers on the H5N1 avian flu virus was biased in favor of their full publication.

Michael Osterholm, an NSABB member and the head of the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy in Minneapolis, Minn., wrote in a letter that the meeting agenda and presenters for the case were stacked in favor of publication. The letter to Amy Patterson, the associate director for science policy at the National Institutes of Health, was anonymously leaked, Nature reports.

A two day meeting was held at the end of March in an effort to stop the controversy surrounding two research papers that described an H5N1 avian influenza virus that could pass between mammals. Initially, the board recommended that the papers be published in redacted form to prevent people from using the detail in the papers to recreate the viruses. During the March meeting, the NSABB revised its position, submitting a unanimous vote to publish one of the papers and a 12-6 vote to publish the other paper.

In the April 12 letter, Osterholm said that the March meeting favored experts doing similar research on flu viruses who had an outcome in the decision. Osterholm said that disinterested scientists with relevant expertise were not invited despite his recommendations of multiple candidates. Osterholm has worked for the US Department of Health and Human Services on biosecurity issues for 20 years, according to Nature.

"This type of review must be based on an expert, scientific, risk-benefit basis," Osterholm said, according to Nature. "And it should involve disinterested experts from a variety of fields. I have been and continue to be a supporter of this kind of research."

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