NEW YORK, Aug 13 (Reuters) - 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.