Steinbruner is frustrated that no such mechanism exists. About five years ago, he and his collaborators studied a scenario similar to the H5N1 transmissibility studies, and realized that the government would need to construct a system to disseminate such information to a limited, vetted set of users (J. Steinbruner et al. Controlling Dangerous Pathogens: A Prototype Protective Oversight System; Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland, Univ. Maryland, 2007). He says they notified the NSABB of their findings, to no effect.
Keim says that working out how to distribute sensitive information is “not our job”, adding that it may fall to the US government’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), possibly with guidance from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Other biosecurity experts say that the NSABB should have been involved in reviewing the H5N1 work earlier. “The time when action is needed is at the grant-application level,” says Laura Kahn, a security expert at Princeton University in New Jersey. But the NSABB can only evaluate a project when the DHHS explicitly asks it to do so. Keim and several other board members hope that in the future they will be asked to weigh in earlier.
“All along, we hoped to assist the US government in putting in place a much more far-reaching, proactive oversight system,” says David Relman, a microbiologist at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, and a member of the board since it began. But “everything of this sort comes at some cost, not just in terms of work and burden and time, but also dollars and bodies”.
For security experts such as Steinbruner, the best solution is to replace the board, or to supplement its role, with a mandatory biosecurity oversight system. Even some scientists who have argued strongly in favour of self-regulation say that they have been disappointed by the NSABB’s performance. “I wanted to see them do more,” says Atlas.
He may get his wish. In the course of its deliberations over the H5N1 papers, the NSABB became aware of additional work on H5N1 transmissibility that was nearing publication. Keim says the board is now considering whether to recommend a voluntary moratorium on the publication of such work until the community can discuss further precautions to prevent misuse. He expects the board to vote on this in the next few weeks, and adds: “It is time for us to have a broad and global discussion.”