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U.S. officials purge biosafety board in midst of anthrax crisis

By Sharon Begley and David Morgan

NEW YORK/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Federal officials, amid the worst U.S. biosafety crisis in years, have dismissed 11 eminent scientists from a 23-member panel that advises the government on how and whether research on dangerous pathogens should be conducted.

The purged members were informed that their service was no longer needed via an email on Sunday night from Mary Groesch, executive director of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB). Two of the dismissed members told Reuters that the notice came without warning. The panel is overseen by the National Institutes of Health.

The action, first reported on Science magazine's website, came two days after federal health officials released details of an investigation of the mishandling of anthrax samples by scientists at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

That probe turned up numerous safety breaches at CDC, igniting concerns about how scientists at the agency and nationwide handle dangerous microbes. In one newly disclosed incident, CDC scientists contaminated samples of low-pathogenic bird flu viruses with a highly pathogenic strain and in March shipped them to a Department of Agriculture lab, where the viruses promptly killed all the chickens exposed to them.

On Wednesday, a subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on the CDC's biosafety lapses.

"Add these to the long list of questions we have about how biosecurity is being managed," said Committee Chairman Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican. "Why hasn't the panel met in years, and why is now the time to dismiss nearly half the experts on this panel tasked with advising the administration on biosecurity?"

In the Sunday night email from NIH, which was reviewed by Reuters, Groesch wrote that she "wanted to tell you that a new slate of NSABB members has been approved as your replacements, and thus your service on the board is ending."

"This may come as welcome news!" she wrote, adding that the departing members "will be missed."

An NIH spokeswoman said in a statement on Tuesday that "it is routine for federal advisory committees to rotate their membership over time so that fresh and diverse perspectives can be brought to bear," and that the dismissed scientists' terms "had been renewed several times."

One of the dismissed members, Michael Imperiale of the University of Michigan, tweeted that it was a "bizarre time to eliminate all institutional memory."

The biosecurity board does not approve particular experiments but offers policy advice on, among other things, oversight of "dual use" studies, meaning research that could be used for biowarfare or bioterrorism as well as for legitimate purposes.

In 2012, for instance, the board recommended that details of experiments on an especially deadly form of avian influenza, H5N1, not be published. They feared the information could be used to create a strain that, unlike the natural form, is highly transmissible between infected people.

At the time, the board's concerns led to a 60-day self-imposed moratorium on NIH-funded projects on H5N1.

One of the dismissed board members expressed surprise that the purge included virtually all of the people with experience of the H5N1 debate and included experts known for communicating openly with fellow scientists and the public on biosafety issues.

Dr. Arturo Casadevall of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, for instance, co-authored a 2012 editorial in the journal of the American Society for Microbiology on the H5N1 debate, calling for "a clear scientific rationale" for studies that enable pathogens to be more deadly or contagious than they are in nature. Casadevall was dismissed from the advisory board on Sunday night.

Also dismissed was microbiologist Paul Keim of Northern Arizona State University, who played a crucial role in the investigation of the 2001 anthrax attacks that killed five people and infected another 17. Keim's DNA analysis of the anthrax mailed to U.S. senators and news organizations allowed investigators to trace the bacteria to an Army lab in Maryland.

"I fell over in my seat," Scott Becker, executive director of the Association of Public Health Laboratories, said of the advisory board dismissals. Given the CDC's recent biosafety missteps, "this seems to not be the time to make major changes."

(Story refiled to correct title of Representative Fred Upton)

(Reporting by Sharon Begley, David Morgan and Julie Steenhuysen; Editing by Michele Gershberg and Jonathan Oatis)

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