The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), the independent advisory group for biosecurity and dual-use research, is changing but not for the better. Science magazine is reporting that half of the group’s members are being replaced. Despite continuing uncertainty about the wisdom of certain types of “gain of function” research with influenza that generates novel strains of the virus, the board is set to lose some of its most experienced members.
Not that it really matters. The NSABB was effectively sidelined following the 2012 controversy over experiments that enabled H5N1 to be transmitted between mammals. Although the group’s charter calls for it to meet twice a year, it hasn’t met since November 2012. The National Institutes of Health (NIH), which runs NSABB, is now scheduling a one-day meeting for the fall. Since part of that meeting will be devoted to honoring the service of the members rotating off the board, don’t expect it to delve into substantive issues such as how well the dual-use research guidelines that NIH published in March 2012 are working, how much “gain of function” research with influenza is occurring in the US and abroad, or how developments in desktop gene synthesis will affect biosecurity.
Even if the NSABB did have regular meetings, it has been stripped of its ability to review dual-use research of concern like the H5N1 transmission experiments. In a little-noticed maneuver, NIH removed a key provision from the NSABB’s charter in April 2012 after its review of the H5N1 research had landed the NIH in hot water (NIH had funded the research without recognizing its dual-use implications) . Prior to 2012, the NSABB’s list of responsibilities included “Review and provide guidance on specific experiments insofar as they exemplify a significant or particularly complex permutation of an existing category of dual use research, or represent a novel category of dual use research that requires additional guidance from the NSABB.” After the H5N1 controversy highlighted the bureaucratic and political risks of having independent experts review dual-use research of concern, NIH got rid of NSABB’s ability to exercise this oversight function.
As the CDC’s mishandling of anthrax and H5N1 and the discovery of live smallpox in an old FDA lab on the NIH campus in Bethesda demonstrate, scientists are human too: they make mistakes. But when these mistakes have the potential to cause outbreaks or even pandemics, there need to be safeguards to ensure that the appropriate biosafety and biosecurity measures are in place. NSABB is not a silver bullet solution to these problems but without oversight of the kind provided by NSABB, the risks posed by bioerrors will only grow.