As U.S. lawmakers investigate the anthrax and bird flu breaches at a federal laboratory, they have begun to question whether outside oversight of research using dangerous microbes is as independent as federal agencies claim.
They are scrutinizing the actions of the nation's leading biomedical research institute, the National Institutes of Health, which in 2004 established a panel of independent advisors to make recommendations about research on pathogens that could be used as biological weapons.
Some private sector biosafety experts say NIH has marginalized the board to prevent it from interfering in research that NIH funds.
In the last two years, members of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) found their responsibilities reduced and their meetings canceled, and nearly a dozen were abruptly dismissed, according to seven current and former board members and a Reuters review of agency documents.
A spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), NIH's parent agency, said the changes reflected the agency's assessment of what it needed from the board and dismissed the suggestion that NIH had marginalized the advisers.
A lack of real oversight could pose a major risk to the public at large, as hundreds of laboratories across the country work with deadly pathogens ranging from bird flu to Ebola without any assessment of the possible risk.
"If there were an accidental release of pathogens, we could be talking about a substantial percentage of the world population succumbing to it," said biologist Richard Roberts, who shared the 1993 Nobel Prize in medicine and is now the chief scientific officer at New England Biolabs.
In a July 28 letter to NIH Director Dr Francis Collins, Republican lawmakers said the role of the NSABB "has assumed even greater important and visibility" in light of the recent anthrax and bird flu breaches at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, NIH's sister agency.
The recent changes to the NSABB "raise serious questions about the rationale and motives behind the dismissals of the panel members," wrote the lawmakers, members of the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee, which is also investigating the CDC mishaps.
They asked NIH to come back to them by Friday. NIH spokeswoman Renate Myles said it was preparing a response.
In June, a CDC lab working with anthrax sent samples of that bacteria to labs that lacked the safety precautions required to handle the microbe, potentially exposing scores of workers. Investigators examining the anthrax breach discovered that in March a different CDC lab had sent a dangerous form of bird flu to an agriculture lab that had requested a benign form, again putting workers in danger.
As part of its plan to address the lapses, CDC last month announced the formation of a panel of outside experts to advise it on lab safety and will provide staff and budget and determine when the panel meets. CDC spokesman Tom Skinner said the advisors "will have the ability to work autonomously."
But biosafety experts said the NSABB experience showed that approach was inherently conflicted.
"Organizations are notoriously bad at policing themselves," said biodefense expert Greg Koblentz of George Mason University. Ideally, an advisory body should not depend on or report to the organization it is overseeing, he said.
After anthrax was mailed to members of Congress and media outlets in 2001, the United States embarked on a massive biodefense build-up, more than tripling the number of laboratories studying dangerous pathogens to 1,500. Three years later, NIH created the NSABB to recommend and develop guidelines for research that could have the unintended consequence of creating bioweapons.
In recent years, however, NIH narrowed the board's responsibilities and did not follow through on members' requests to study hot-button issues, according t