A classified briefing from U.S. intelligence officials helped persuade a majority of members of a government advisory board that the benefits of publishing two controversial H5N1 avian influenza studies outweighed the risks, according to testimony presented yesterday  at a U.S. Senate hearing.
The late March briefing to the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) left "the impression that the risk of misuse did not appreciably increase with full publication and there is a high likelihood of undesirable political consequences to not publishing," microbiologist Paul Keim of Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, acting chair of NSABB, told the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs .
Keim's comments, and discussion of other previously unknown details about NSABB's deliberations, came at a hearing examining how the U.S. government should handle "dual-use" biological research that could be used for both good and evil. The hearing was prompted, in large part, by the H5N1 controversy, said Senator Joseph Liebermann (I-CT), the chair of the panel.
Four witnesses, including Keim and Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), discussed the NSABB decision and new U.S. government rules designed to identify taxpayer-funded dual-use research of concern (DURC) before it begins. They also responded to criticism of the NSABB process by one of the panel's members, Michael Osterholm of the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, in a letter first obtained by ScienceInsider .
Among the hearing's highlights:
- Fauci and Daniel M. Gerstein, the deputy under secretary for science and technology at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), provided details on how many studies their DURC screening programs had flagged.
- At the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Fauci said reviews had initially identified 404 intramural research projects and 147 manuscripts that might be DURC, but none proved problematic. The reviews also flagged 381 extramural grants or contracts, of which 10 are now being further reviewed for their DURC implications. Seven of these projects involve influenza viruses, he said. The three remaining studies involve anthrax, plague, and botulism agents (one each).
- At DHS, Gerstein said reviewers look over about 225 projects annually for DURC. Just 12 to 15 "perhaps could have some issues with perception" that they are DURC, he said, and five to 10 fall into the "highest category" that requires greater scrutiny.
- Microbiologist Keim provided new details about NSABB's deliberations over the two flu papers. He revealed that late last year, the board split over how much detail to redact from one of the studies, led by Ron Fouchier of the Erasmus MC in The Netherlands, but unanimously agreed that it should not be published. (In March, the board recommended, also on a split vote, to publish a revised version of the paper.)
- Keim also discussed the classified briefing, which Osterholm has charged was "incomplete" and "useless." Keim said board members went into the briefing "as scientists and pretty much took … on faith that what we were hearing in the assessments of the risks and political consequences were facts. … That was an environment where the board is perhaps a little bit naïve. We don't have the capability to look behind these assessments … and we were only able to ask so many questions." But the briefers were "quite confident," he said, "and that briefing in fact suggested to us that the risks [of publishing the two papers] were quite minimal and that the political consequences were great. And I think that had a great effect upon the board."
- Keim said he generally agreed with some the complaints Osterholm made in his letter about the NSABB process, and viewed it as "a very constructive type of a communication." But "it was unfortunate that it was leaked and it became part of the public dialog. It makes it harder to have a constructive and proactive type of conversation."
- Keim was not persuaded of Osterholm's charge that "biased" expert testimony to NSABB made much of a difference, however. "One point that he makes in the letter is that there was in fact a bias in the witness list. I think that is true. The primary witnesses that we brought in … were in fact the investigators themselves. They are inherently biased. They wanted their work published." But "I don't think this is of great concern," Keim added. "We are scientists on this board, … and we can be very critical. … And so the biases that were inherent in those types of witnesses I think was not a problem for us. … We were able to ask very tough questions." The March meeting "was never set up as point counterpoint," he added.
- Fauci said, "I disagree with many of the things" in Osterholm's letter, and that NIH has "responded on a point-by-point basis to everything" in it. "There were several things in there that I have to say quite frankly, Mr. Chairman, that I disagree with," he told Lieberman. "One of which was the concern about the security briefing. I have a great deal of trust in the director of national intelligence to tell us what we need to know." On the issue of the witnesses, Fauci also said, "We did not get any indication from Dr. Osterholm of people he wanted to see there that weren't there."
- The hearing was generally mild in tone, and was attended by just two senators-Lieberman and Susan Collins (R-ME); Collins left early to attend to other business. Near the end of the hearing, Lieberman said, "I've learned a lot from the testimony today, and overall I am reassured by the government policies that have been put in effect and the decision making process that we have."