The process leading to the US biosecurity board recommending full publication of two controversial H5N1 flu papers has been criticized by a board member in a letter sent to the National Institutes of Health last week (April 12). Influenza epidemiologist Michael Osterholm of the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, outlined his criticisms to Amy Patterson, associate director for science policy at the NIH, reported Nature.
The US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) had previously recommended that the two controversial H5N1 papers, which detailed mutations that allow for ferret-to-ferret aerosol transmission, be published in redacted form, a recommendation that was rescinded at last month’s meeting. Osterholm himself voted for publication of one paper, but was concerned that modifications to the second paper did not adequately address bioterrorism concerns. In the letter, Osterholm elucidates his concerns that the risks were given short shrift and that the meeting was designed to encourage full publication of the H5N1 papers.
While Osterholm said he sees no “sinister motive” behind the meeting’s agenda, he wrote, “…I believe there was a bias toward finding a solution that was a lot less about a robust science- and policy-based risk-benefit analysis and more about how to get us out of this difficult situation.” Some proponents of full data disclosure argue that it will aid in virus surveillance, but Osterholm wrote that no virus surveillance experts were invited. Instead he saw an “‘involved influenza research community’ telling us what they should and shouldn’t be allowed to do based on their interested perspective.”
Susan Ehrlich, a retired judge and NSABB member who voted against full publication of the second paper, told Science that Osterholm's letter "thoughtfully presents very valid points, ones that warrant further and serious discussion."
Read more expert opinions about the risks of such research in this month’s featured debate about scientific transparency and public health protection.