The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) today released a response to a sharply worded internal criticism about the handling of two controversial H5N1 avian influenza papers, one of which was published in Nature yesterday.
The criticism came from Michael Osterholm, a public-health researcher and member of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), which had been asked to advise the government on the potential biosecurity risks of publishing the papers in full. After an initial unanimous recommendation to redact the papers, the 22 voting members of NSABB were called back to the NIH campus to re-evaluate the decision in light of additional information and revisions to the papers. This time it voted in favour of publication, but six members of the NSABB, including Osterholm, dissented on the publication of one of the manuscripts.
Osterholm’s letter, which was leaked to Science and Nature, called the proceedings of this meeting, held 29–30 March, biased and incomplete, presenting an argument with the express purpose of getting the papers published.
In a six-page response — released today, but dated 25 April — Amy Patterson, an NIH official who manages the NSABB, responded to Osterholm’s critiques point by point. She writes that the views and perspectives that Osterholm claims were lacking at the meeting were in fact presented, by Osterholm himself. She says that he did not provide recommendations for experts to speak at the meeting. (In his letter, Osterholm said, “I personally tried to have their voices represented at the meeting. They were not invited.”) And she notes that although she respects his opinions and perspectives, “I do believe that some of them were based in part on a misunderstanding of the facts.”
Interestingly, Patterson notes that the US government is now looking into ways to allow “controlled access to sensitive scientific information for those with a legitimate need to know, in cases where certain details are redacted from a manuscript.” This is a mechanism that many members in the NSABB have been calling for, but one that obviously wasn’t ready for the H5N1 papers. Many in the scientific community worry that this redaction process is tantamount to censorship and that it has delicate political implications internationally. Without involvement from the rest of the world, it could seem that the United States or a handful of developed countries are attempting to unilaterally control the release of potentially dangerous information.