NBSB starts work on new medical countermeasure review

Feb 2, 2012 (CIDRAP News) – In its first meeting of the year, a panel that advises the federal government on biodefense issues started work on revising the government's strategy for building the best collection of medical countermeasures against biological, chemical, and other threats.

Nicole Lurie, MD, assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), asked the National Biodefense Science Board (NBSB) to take on the new task, noting that the government's key countermeasure goals typically undergo a critical review every 5 to 7 years, with the NBSB's last major review issued in 2007.

"We need a new strategy and implementation plan that takes advantage of what we have learned from experience," she said. She said the review serves as an early look over the HHS's shoulder to make sure the medical countermeasure goals and objectives are on track and to ensure that there are no gaps.

The full board began its deliberations in an afternoon session that was closed to the public to protect sensitive information about countermeasure procurement.

In 2011 Lurie asked the NBSB to explore pediatric anthrax vaccine issues, and in October it recommended that the HHS develop a plan to study the use of the vaccine in children before an attack with Bacillus anthracis, an idea that has been opposed by some members of the public and some medical professionals.

Part of the NBSB's recommendation was to have appropriate groups consider the ethical issues related to the anthrax vaccine and children. Lurie told the board today that the president's bioethics commission has been asked to review those issues, and its work will soon get underway.

On Jan 10 HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius asked the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (PCSBI) for advise on the topic, according to a press release from the group. Its executive director Valerie Bonham, JD, said in the statement that the commission is well aware of public interest in the NBSB's pediatric anthrax vaccine recommendation.

"The Commission is honored that the Secretary has asked for its advice on this important ethical issue," she said, adding that the group doesn't want the review to derail its other work on genetics and neuroethics issues and that it will develop a schedule to ensure that all the government's needs are addressed.

In housekeeping measures, Lurie lauded outgoing NBSB members, including former chairwoman Patricia Quinlisk, MD, MPH, medical director for the Iowa Department of Public Health. The group's new chair is John S. Parker, MD, retired Army major general.

During the public comments, the board was read a letter it received from a medical professional who was concerned about biosafety issues related to two controversial H5N1 transmission studies and asked the board to consider the need for a countermeasure against the lab-made viruses.

The group also heard from Barry Skolnick, MS, an independent technical analyst who said he was troubled about what he said is a weak scientific foundation behind anthrax environmental surface testing practices. Though he said the technique is a nonmedical countermeasure, he said he wanted to make the board aware of it, with the hope of moving the issue forward as a federal research priority.

See also:

Feb 2 NBSB meeting agenda

Jan 11 PCSBI press release

Jan 19 CIDRAP News scan "NBSB names 6 new members"

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