Remaining Inaugural Members of NSABB Dismissed Last Night

NSABBHowardFineIt’s not exactly been what one would call a banner month for the National Institutes of Health or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the last week and change, it’s been revealed that oops, the CDC completely screwed up how it handles anthrax and possibly exposed 86-odd people to anthrax and they accidentally shipped out H9N2 that had been contaminated with H5N1. Then, this morning, a study from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service–a study that the CDC has known about since July 10–revealed such charming details as anthrax being stored in refrigerators in an unrestricted hallway with the key to one sitting in its lock.1 (I hope you weren’t planning on sleeping ever again.) And of course, in case any of that isn’t close enough to a Richard Preston novel, there was the whole “forgetting those vials of smallpox in cold storage” thing with NIH and the Food and Drug Administration.

As a result of all this Three Stooges-esque mishandling of select agents and scary things, the House Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee is convening Wednesday to ask Dr. Thomas Friedan, director of the CDC, and friends (like Joseph Henderson, deputy director of the CDC’s Office of Security and Emergency Preparedness; Jere Dick, associate deputy administrator of APHIS; and Nancy Kingsbury, a managing director of the Government Accountability Office) to come explain exactly how Larry, Moe, and Curly ended up wreaking havoc at the Center.

So naturally, Sunday night was the perfect time to dismiss the remaining inaugural members of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity.
WTELF
Now, apparently the NSABB hadn’t met in two years, and according to Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, his last contact with the NIH regarding the NSABB was in the Spring of 2013.2 Which, if you’ve been following dual-use research of concern or gain of function research news, is concerning, to say the least.

But possibly even worse is how utterly tone deaf and cheerful this “your services are no longer required, you’re dismissed” email is. Apparently Mary Groesch is, in addition to being the Executive Director of the NSABB, the Queen of Perky. Don’t believe me? Lucky for you, I just so happen to have acquired a copy of the dismissal letter.

Dear Members of the NSABB,

Greetings! I hope that all is well with each of you. My purpose in writing to you—the last of the original NSABB members—is several fold. First, I wanted to tell you that a new slate of NSABB members has been approved as your replacements, and thus your service on the board is ending. Since you have all been so gracious as to extend your service for several years beyond your initial term, this may come as welcome news!

Yes, I’m sure it’s welcome news that, after a week of Really Bad Revelations from the CDC, NIH, and FDA, their expertise will no longer be needed. The expertise they bring as inaugural members of the NSABB. SiskoIsNotAmusedThe expertise they bring being the people who had to figure out how to deal with the Fouchier and Kawaoka H5N1 publishing crisis. I can’t imagine how any of that might be necessary or needed now.

But hey, don’t worry. The inaugural members of the NSABB that were dismissed have been invited to join the next NSABB meeting in the fall, where they can watch, as ad hoc members, as the new committee largely goes “nyah nyah” and ignores their recommendations. Of course, that’s just my interpretation of the email, but “I welcome you to attend in an ad hoc capacity the next meeting of the NSABB, where we will recognize your service on the Board,” “We will also recognize your service and introduce the new members to the Board,” and “We also would welcome your attendance at this meeting in a non-voting, ad hoc capacity both to contribute to our discussions and to say farewell” doesn’t exactly inspire confidence, faith, or trust in the now-gutted NSABB. In fact, I’m really only surprised that “YOU CANNOT VOTE AND YOU HAVE NO SAY” wasn’t included in bolded, underlined text.

What in the bloody hell is the NIH thinking? I’d ask if they have no policy or communications advisers on staff, except that I see at least one science policy analyst on the email CC list, so clearly this was signed off by at least one person who should know better.

When the theoretically premier laboratory in the world is as badly compromised by ineptitude as the CDC has stunningly demonstrated that they are, you don’t turn around and dismiss your experts. You hang on to those experts, grateful that they’re still around, and you say help. You say help really loudly. And then you sit down, shut up, and listen.

You don’t fire the people who’ve been around so long that they can say “I told you so.”

Unless, of course, that’s the point.
LowerYourExpectations
And frankly, at the moment, given who was released and their expertise, it’s hard to see how this is anything other than an effort to stack the deck towards people who will be sympathetic to the NIH and CDC, rather than be the critical, independent review board with teeth, a la the National Transportation Safety Board, that biosecurity research needs.

Which is not to say that all is lost, or that there are not people much more impressive and with much bigger sticks who are not willing to sit down and shut up and let the NIH run amok without oversight. While I wish the House committee all the best this Wednesday, my faith more strongly lies with the Cambridge Working Group,3 who ever-so-coincidentally met today in Cambridge,4 and their Consensus Statement on the Creation of Potential Pandemic Pathogens (see below for full text).

The following NSABB members were informed they were no longer needed Sunday evening:
Arturo Casadevall, MD, PhD – Chair, Department of Microbiology & Immunology, Albert Einstein College of Medicine
David R. Franz, DVM, PhD, Colonel, USA (Retired) – Former Commander, United States Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases
John A. Gordon, General, USAF (Retired) – Former Deputy Director, CIA
Michael J. Imperiale, PhD – Professor and Associate Chair, Department of Microbiology and Immunology, University of Michigan School of Medicine
Paul Keim, PhD – Regents’ Professor and Cowden Chair in Microbiology, Department of Biological Sciences, Northern Arizona University
Stanley M. Lemon, MD – Professor of Medicine, Division of Infectious Diseases, University of North Carolina School of Medicine
John R. Lumpkin, MD, MPH – Senior Vice President and Director, Targeted Teams, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
Stuart B. Levy, MD – Director, Center for Adaptation Genetics and Drug Resistance, Tufts University
Michael Osterholm, MD, PhD – Director of CIDRAP, University of Minnesota
David Relman, MD – Department of Medicine, Division of Infectious Diseases,
and Department of Microbiology & Immunology, Stanford University
James A. Roth, DVM, PhD – Director, Center for Food Security and Public Health, Iowa State University

Maybe it’s just me, but that’s a list of guys5 and expertise I’d feel better having on the NSABB than off.

Especially right now.

Definitely right now.


The below text has been reprinted with permission. Please share. Please do not credit Kelly Hills for this work. She just happened to get a copy and the permission to post it.6

July 14, 2014

Cambridge Working Group Consensus Statement on the Creation of Potential Pandemic Pathogens (PPPs)

Recent incidents involving smallpox, anthrax and bird flu in some of the top US laboratories remind us of the fallibility of even the most secure laboratories, reinforcing the urgent need for a thorough reassessment of biosafety. Such incidents have been accelerating and have been occurring on average over twice a week with regulated pathogens in academic and government labs across the country. An accidental infection with any pathogen is concerning. But accident risks with newly created “potential pandemic pathogens” raises grave new concerns. Laboratory creation of highly transmissible, novel strains of dangerous viruses, especially but not limited to influenza, poses substantially increased risks. An accidental infection in such a setting could trigger outbreaks that would be difficult or impossible to control. Historically, new strains of influenza, once they establish transmission in the human population, have infected a quarter or more of the world’s population within two years.

For any experiment, the expected net benefits should outweigh the risks. Experiments involving the creation of potential pandemic pathogens should be curtailed until there has been a quantitative, objective and credible assessment of the risks, potential benefits, and opportunities for risk mitigation, as well as comparison against safer experimental approaches. A modern version of the Asilomar process, which engaged scientists in proposing rules to manage research on recombinant DNA, could be a starting point to identify the best approaches to achieve the global public health goals of defeating pandemic disease and assuring the highest level of safety. Whenever possible, safer approaches should be pursued in preference to any approach that risks an accidental pandemic.

Amir Attaran, University of Ottawa
Barry Bloom, Harvard School of Public Health
Arturo Casadevall, Albert Einstein College of Medicine
Richard Ebright, Rutgers University
Nicholas G. Evans, University of Pennsylvania
David Fisman, University of Toronto Dalla Lana School of Public Health
Alison Galvani, Yale School of Public Health
Peter Hale, Foundation for Vaccine Research
Edward Hammond, Third World Network
Michael Imperiale, University of Michigan
Thomas Inglesby, UPMC Center for Health Security
Marc Lipsitch, Harvard School of Public Health
Michael Osterholm, University of Minnesota/CIDRAP
David Relman, Stanford University
Richard Roberts, New England Biolabs
Marcel Salathé, Pennsylvania State University
Silja Vöneky, University of Freiburg Institute of Public Law, Deutscher Ethikrat
Affiliations are for purposes of identification only and do not imply any institutional endorsement

  1. U.S. inspectors find further anthrax violations, mishandling []
  2. Quote taken from Jon Cohen’s rapid coverage of the dismissals. []
  3. This link may not have propagated yet, but the domain was registered and should be going live any minute now. Aaany minute now,… []
  4. No, really. It’s been in the works for week. It was one of those TIMING OF THE CENTURY sort of things. []
  5. Yep, all guys. I know. Different topic for a different night. []
  6. Can’t imagine how that happened. []

Analyzing Groupon’s Failure

I feel like people are probably expecting a comment on Groupon’s amazingly over the top, tasteless, offensive advertisement shown during the Super Bowl last night. (Why do I feel like people expect this? Well, I’m Buddhist and I am known for being cranky. It’s not really a large leap there…)

So, yes, I found that Groupon advertisement to be a masterclass in what not to do. For those who missed the advert, here it is:

The copy reads

Mountainous Tibet – one of the most beautiful places in the world. This is Timothy Hutton. The people of Tibet are in trouble, their very culture in jeopardy. But they still whip up an amazing fish curry. And since 200 of us bought on Groupon.com we’re getting $30 worth of Tibetan food for just $15 at Himalayan restaurant in Chicago.

Let’s get the basics out of the way, first. Tibet is in the Himalayas, yes – and because of this, Tibetan cuisine, along with most Himalayan cuisine, doesn’t involve fish. Neither does it involve curry (although Tibetans living in exile in India have added it to their diet).

Facts aside, there are still massive issues here. Putting aside the big one for a minute, the slightly smaller one is the incredibly tone-deaf advertisement creating a situation that suggests all is okay because the displaced, threatened culture can still cook for the White Man. I am not a race scholar by any means, but you don’t need to be one to see the ugly legacy of colonialism echoing in the advertisement.

And then, of course, there is the big issue. The Big Issue. The fact that Groupon is using the genocide of a people to sell it’s services. The occupation of Tibet is considered by many to be one of the grossest examples of human rights violations in the last fifty years. We know that China has imprisoned, beaten, raped, tortured, and killed men and women, monks and nuns, who refuse to renounce their Buddhist beliefs or their allegiance to the Dalai Lama. We know that China has “disappeared” the entire family of the Panchen Lama – at least, the one recognized by the Dalai Lama and other ranking Buddhist monks. China has made it clear that when the current Dalai Lama dies, they will try to instill a puppetmaster in his place – and that they intend to destroy the religion. They have already destroyed countless monasteries, artifacts, and aspects of culture and way of life.

So naturally, Groupon thinks this is a great thing to use to sell it’s services. Because making fun of Darfur would have been dated, and Egypt happened too quickly for them to jump on that train, I suppose. And Groupon did think it was a great thing; from their Twitter feed:

Like standing too close to a rainbow, viewers’ hearts are warmed by #Groupon’s Super Bowl ad. #brandbowl http://bit.ly/e7X48C

It was only well after the Tibet advertisement aired that Groupon realized it badly miscalculated; almost an hour after airing, the topic was still trending on Twitter, and the feedback was not positive. Then Groupon posted an additional tweet, which has not yet been supplanted by anything else:

Support Tibet’s largest charity here: http://savethemoney.groupon.com/

Now, in it’s supposed-defense, prior to airing of any of the advertisements yesterday, Groupon’s Andrew Mason (founder) posted this at it’s site:

The gist of the concept is this: When groups of people act together to do something, it’s usually to help a cause. With Groupon, people act together to help themselves by getting great deals. So what if we did a parody of a celebrity-narrated, PSA-style commercial that you think is about some noble cause (such as ‘Save the Whales’), but then it’s revealed to actually be a passionate call to action to help yourself (as in ‘Save the Money’)?

The actual “Save the Money” link says:

Money is one of our most important natural resources. Sadly, thousands of dollars are wasted every year. Until now.

Finally, celebrities are lining up to spread the word about this important fight. Watch the informative videos below to find out how you can help save the money.

If you save so much money that you feel like saving something else, donate to the four mission-driven organizations below. Groupon is matching donations to make sure they can save the money too.

There are two issues here. The first is practical: the only people who know about “Save the Money” are the people who are already reading Groupon’s blogs and participating in it’s forum(s). The advertisements themselves don’t include any information. And in fact, had Groupon even decided to air a black title card with information on “Save the Money” with a link to the Tibet Fund, then we might not be having any of this conversation. But instead, the company courted disaster by creating a small group of “in-the-know” people who the advertisement wasn’t created for. The people with no, or only passing, familiarity, with Groupon had no context for the charity aspect of these commercials.

The second is a bit more academic. Andrew Mason has said that this was supposed to be a poke at Groupon’s origins, a fun parody and a satiric take on the celebrity PSA. The issue is in how satire – and even parody – work. Both work when a situation is turned on it’s head, allowing the viewer to see the foolish nature of the person, or position, being targeted (whether it is their own views or, say, Glenn Beck’s). This is why The Daily Show excels at just what they do – they’ve mastered the art of changing perception, and highlighting just how foolish their target (often Fox and personalities) are being.

The problem with Groupon’s target here is that few people think that outrage over the situation in Tibet is wrong or foolish. The concept is a bit more viable in the other two Groupon advertisements aired last night (save the whales by whale-watching and save the rainforest by getting a Brazilian wax) only because those two situations don’t involve the actual torture, imprisonment, and death of a cultural group. So instead, the focus of “who is foolish” flips back on Groupon – people don’t feel that opposing the Chinese occupation of Tibet is foolish, or that their support (financial or otherwise) is foolish. Therefore, Groupon becomes foolish (and tone-deaf, insensitive, and more) for their advertisement. (Note: it taints Timothy Hutton pretty badly, too.)

The takeaway here is pretty simple. It’s really hard to make genocide funny. It’s pretty much going to be impossible to use genocide – be it Nazis, Tibet, or Darfur – to positively reflect your brand or to sell anything. The exception here is if you manage to come up with the musical heir to The Producers. But unless you have the modern equivalent of Springtime for Hitler under your belt, you’d best leave genocide to the documentaries and dramas, and consider something else for your first national advertising campaign.

Note:
The Chicago Tribune has a continuous Twitter-feed of responses (still continuing) to the Tibet advertisement. Some people might argue that any publicity is good publicity, but I’m not sure I agree in this case – associating your product with an apparent callous regard for human life really doesn’t seem like a winning strategy to attract new users, or maintain the old.

Forbes gets the best headline out of the event, noting that Goupon’s 2-for-1 Super Bowl Special Offends Both China and Tibet Activists. Groupon had been trying to make inroads into China. Chinese reaction this morning suggests Groupon just did a worse-than-Google, as far as they’re concerned. So, shooting oneself in both feet? Check!