NSABB may not have been up to bird flu oversight task

After the controversial debate surrounding the H5N1 avian influenza studies published by Yoshihiro Kawaoka and Ron Fouchier, questions linger about whether or not the biosecurity panel was up to the challenge.

In November, the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity recommended that the two mammal transmissibility studies of the deadly bird flu be redacted with only their conclusions published. The decision was criticized and the NSABB was pressured to re-evaluate the studies, Nature reports.

"The United States funded this research and then wanted to censor it," David Fidler, an international law instructor at Indiana University Bloomington, said, according to Nature. "This looked dysfunctional."

While there were two sides to the argument of whether the papers should be published or not, everyone agreed that the regulation of the studies should have happened much earlier in the process.

"This is not the way any of us wants to see these issues discussed, that is, at the eleventh hour and fifty-ninth minute." David Relman, an NSABB member, said, according to Nature.

The suggestion to redact the papers was the first time the board had recommended such a restriction since it was convened in 2005.

"I was very uncomfortable with the idea of redacting information because I think that it's a slippery slope," Arturo Casadevall, a microbiologist and member of the NSABB, said, according to Nature. "We just didn't think it would be a good idea to put a recipe out there."

In March, the board reconvened and reversed its previous decision. Kawaoka's study was unanimously recommended for publication while Fouchier's passed by a count of 12-6.

"Even the 12 who voted in favor of publication were uneasy about this uncertainty in the virus," Paul Keim, the acting chair of the NSABB, said, according to Nature. "I do think questions should be asked about the manner and process by which we were asked to perform this reassessment."

Some have questioned whether it was appropriate in the first place for the NSABB to be under the control of the National Institutes of Health, the funder of the research, in the first place. A vote against publication could risk the funding of future experiments. While the controversy was difficult for the researchers involved, the government has learned how important early regulation of such studies can be.

"I don't know how much of a silver lining that is," Fidler said, according to Nature. "(This) may happen again, but at least it's out in the open."

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