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No attempt to steer biosecurity board's decision on bird flu studies: NIH

A U.S. government official has refuted criticism of the way a meeting held to allow a biosecurity advisory group to review controversial bird flu studies was handled.

Dr. Amy Patterson, associate director for science policy in the office of the director of the National Institutes of Health, was responding to a harsh critique of the meeting from Michael Osterholm, a member of the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity.

In a letter to Patterson dated April 12, Osterholm slammed the agenda and speakers list of a March 29-30 meeting convened so that the NSABB could consider new drafts of two studies the board had previously advised should only be published in an abbreviated form.

The studies reveal how H5N1 viruses can be mutated to become transmissible among mammals. Late last year the NSABB recommended the U.S. government ask the journals planning to publish the papers to withhold details of how the work was done for security reasons.

That advice, which the U.S. government accepted, touched off a heated and protracted debate. Critics on one side contended the work should never have been done while others argued full access to the data was needed both to strengthen surveillance of changes to H5N1 viruses in the wild and to safeguard a fledgling international flu virus sharing agreement.

At the late March meeting, the biosecurity panel voted unanimously to withdraw its objection to full publication of one study, led by flu virologist Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It also agreed the second study should be published in full, though the vote in that case was 18 to six.

Osterholm’s letter, which was leaked to the news departments of the journals Science and Nature, said the meeting “was designed to produce the outcome that occurred.”

“It represented a very ‘one-sided’ picture of the risk-benefit of the dissemination of the information in these manuscripts,” wrote Osterholm, who is director of the Center for Infectious Diseases Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

He also criticized a security briefing given to board members, calling it “incomplete” and “useless.”

In her letter, Patterson denied the agenda was crafted to achieve a predetermined outcome. The biosecurity board reports to the U.S. government through Patterson.

“We were naturally very interested in what the NSABB would ultimately recommend, but there was no ‘right answer’ towards which we sought to steer the committee,” Patterson replied.

Patterson’s letter was released Friday by the National Institutes of Health. Earlier the organization had refused to share the letter with journalists. It relented after sharing the document with the U.S. Congress.

Osterholm was not available for interview on Friday.

Patterson also questioned Osterholm’s complaint that speakers he had wanted at the meeting were excluded, saying her office did not receive any suggestions from him of experts who should be added to the agenda.

And she also challenged Osterholm’s characterization of the security briefing, saying many NSABB members told her they felt it was “thorough and helpful.”

The first of the contested studies, the work led by Kawaoka, was published this week in the journal Nature.

There is no word yet when the second paper will be published. That study, led by Dutch virologist Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam, will be published in Science.