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Fight Over Dutch H5N1 Paper Enters Endgame
24 April 2012 2:41 pm
AMSTERDAM—After an international meeting of scientists and security experts on Monday, the Dutch government says it may decide very soon whether virologist Ron Fouchier of Erasmus MC in Rotterdam is eligible for an export license that would allow him to resubmit his controversial H5N1 transmissibility study for publication by Science.
Fouchier, for his part, says he has decided today to apply for an export license, needed for so-called dual-use technologies, after meeting with his co-authors, the board of Erasmus MC, and lawyers. But the application will make clear that the researchers dispute the obligation to do so, a legal construction that Fouchier says will avoid the creation of a precedent. Fouchier is still "adamantly opposed" to the requirement for a license, which he worries will set a "terrible precedent" for infectious disease researchers in Europe.
A government spokesperson confirms that Fouchier has filed an application today and says that Henk Bleker, the minister for agriculture and foreign trade, is likely to make a decision "within a few days." (The fact that Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte tendered the resignation of his entire cabinet yesterday won't delay the decision.)
At issue is Fouchier's study of H5N1 transmissibility in ferrets, which has come under scrutiny by the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), along with a similar paper by Yoshihiro Kawaoka from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. NSABB recommended against fully publishing the papers in late 2011 but reversed that decision last month after studying revised manuscripts.
The Dutch government has yet to take a position on whether Fouchier's paper should be published. Yesterday's meeting in The Hague was hosted by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs and included scientists and security experts from the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, Indonesia, and Vietnam, along with representatives from the World Health Organization, Nature, and Science, the two journals where the manuscripts have been submitted. The closed meeting was set up to gather additional information and did not result in formal recommendations, says Marianne Donker, head of the Public Health Department at the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport, one of eight Dutch ministries involved in aspects of the case.
The government had already talked extensively with Fouchier and consulted two Dutch intelligence agencies. "We now have pretty much all the information on the table," says Donker. After NSABB's turnaround, few expect the Dutch government to try to stop publication of the paper, which has also been greenlighted by an expert panel convened by the World Health Organization and the U.S. government. But the government has insisted that Fouchier apply for an export license first.
Last night, Donker and Fouchier faced off during a public debate held at the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences here, where Fouchier had trouble hiding his exasperation. "This is pure censorship, as far as I'm concerned," he said. Donker, meanwhile, asked Fouchier "not to let this case escalate." "We would like to continue this process with Ron as we're supposed to," she said.
At the heart of their argument is the government's opinion that Fouchier needs an export license to publish the paper, or even post it on the lab's Web site, where it would be accessible to readers outside the Netherlands. The government is basing the decision on a 2009 European Union regulation and a corresponding Dutch law banning the export of certain goods and technologies that could be used for good or evil. An annex to the regulation stipulates that the ban includes H5N1 and technologies related to the virus—along with many other human, animal, and plant pathogens. But the regulation makes an exemption for ″basic scientific research," defined as "experimental or theoretical work undertaken principally to acquire new knowledge of the fundamental principles of phenomena or observable facts, not primarily directed towards a specific practical aim or objective."
Fouchier said his study falls in that category, because he's interested in the fundamental question of what makes flu viruses transmissible between mammals. Moreover, the government's invocation of export control rules to prevent publication of a paper is unprecedented, Fouchier said, and he warned that if the Dutch interpretation of the E.U. regulation carries the day, the work of many European researchers could be paralyzed.
Donker pointed out that Fouchier himself has always stressed the practical benefits his findings may have -- -from helping prevent pandemics to testing drugs and vaccines against pandemic H5N1 strains. "It's not basic research. It's directly applicable," she said.
Fouchier had presented his data earlier in the day at The Hague, as did Kawaoka. Also present at the foreign affairs department was Fouchier's longtime collaborator Derek Smith, a mathematician at the University of Cambridge, who presented the data from an epidemiological paper on which Kawaoka and Fouchier collaborated. That paper, also presented at the NSABB meeting in March, puts the data in the two controversial manuscripts in perspective, Fouchier says. A fourth presenter talked about nonproliferation.