The United States government has formally accepted a recommendation from a biosecurity advisory board to publish two controversial studies of the H5N1 avian influenza virus, moving the pair of papers another step closer to publication.
The announcement came today in a statement from Francis S. Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, which was posted on NIH's Web site. It says that Collins and Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, "concur with the NSABB's [U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity's] recommendation that the information in the two manuscripts should be communicated fully and we have conveyed our concurrence to the journals considering publication of the manuscripts. This information has clear value to national and international public health preparedness efforts and must be shared with those who are poised to realize the benefits of this research. … The Secretary's decision takes account of relevant U.S. law, international obligations, and a rigorous analysis of the benefits and risks of publication."
The announcement follows a 30 March announcement from the NSABB that it supported publication of revised versions of the two papers, one by Yoshihiro Kawaoka at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and another by Ron Fouchier of Erasmus MC in the Netherlands. Late last year, the panel had recommended against full publication, concluding that the risks posed by the research outweighed its potential benefits. The decision sparked a global controversy and ultimately prompted NSABB to reconsider the decision.
Fouchier's paper still faces at least one hurdle to publication by Science. On 23 April, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs in The Hague is hosting a meeting to discuss the security implications of the H5N1 research. In particular, the Dutch government is deciding whether if it will invoke export-control laws in a bid to prevent Fouchier from submitting a revised version of his paper to Science.
The security implications of biomedical research are also expected to get some attention from U.S. lawmakers on 26 April, when the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs has scheduled a hearing on "Biological Security: The Risk of Dual-Use Research." Scheduled to testify are: Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which funded the two controversial flu studies; Daniel Gerstein, deputy under secretary for science and technology at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security; Paul Keim, acting chair of NSABB and a microbiologist at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff; and Thomas Inglesby, director of the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center in Pennsylvania.