News & AnalysisBiosecurity

Will Dutch Allow ‘Export’ of Controversial Flu Study?

Science  20 Apr 2012:
Vol. 336, Issue 6079, pp. 285
DOI: 10.1126/science.336.6079.285
In the limelight.

Virologist Ron Fouchier (center) discussed his paper on a popular Dutch talk show on 21 February.

CREDIT: DWDD/VARA (3)

AMSTERDAM, THE NETHERLANDS—He already defended the merits of his controversial H5N1 avian influenza study at meetings in Geneva, Washington, and London. Now, Dutch virologist Ron Fouchier will do the same at home. On 23 April, Fouchier will attend a meeting organized by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in The Hague, a 25-minute drive from his lab at Erasmus MC in Rotterdam. That same evening, he's booked for a 2-hour public debate at the 17th century canal-side mansion of the Netherlands Royal Academy of Arts and Sciences, here in the capital.

The second meeting is expected to be well attended. But the first, held behind closed doors, will likely help decide the fate of Fouchier's paper on how he made the H5N1 virus transmissible in mammals. The Dutch government must decide if it will invoke export-control laws in a bid to prevent Fouchier from submitting a revised version of his paper to Science.

Last month, in a surprising shift, the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) recommended that Fouchier's study be published in full, along with a similar one by Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, under review by Nature (Science, 6 April, p. 19). But the Dutch government still isn't sure. It says Fouchier needs an export license to publish the sensitive paper, because it involves “dualuse” research that could be used for good or evil. Whether it will grant one will depend in part on the meeting, says a spokesperson for the Ministry of Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation. Among the 30-odd guests are Kawaoka and other scientists and officials from the United States, Japan, Indonesia, Vietnam, and the United Kingdom, as well as representatives from Science, Nature, and the World Health Organization (WHO).

Even if the government releases the paper, the debate is likely to have wider ramifications. Dutch parliamentarians have asked the government for stricter oversight of dual-use research, and health minister Edith Schippers has hinted she may support the creation of a European version of the NSABB.

Reactions to Fouchier's study in the Netherlands were relatively muted when news about it hit Dutch papers late last year. His lab's proactive, open media strategy and efforts to keep officials at the relevant ministries in the loop had “nipped the debate in the bud,” Fouchier concluded. But the perception that Dutch officials hadn't properly considered the study's risks prompted criticism from members of the Dutch House of Representatives—especially after NSABB recommended last December that key details be redacted from Fouchier's paper. “We couldn't just ignore that opinion,” says Henk Jan Ormel, a House member representing the Christian Democratic Appeal party.

But Ormel calls the government's response—requiring that Fouchier apply for an export permit—“a bit artificial.” The demand is based on the government's interpretation of a 2009 European Union regulation governing the export of sensitive technologies and materials, including H5N1. Those rules exempt “basic scientific research,” which lawyers for Erasmus MC say includes Fouchier's study. Fouchier didn't apply for a permit when he first submitted the paper to Science; the government says that omission may have broken the law.

Given NSABB's reversal—which followed a similar recommendation to publish in February from an expert group assembled by WHO—some believe the Dutch government is unlikely to resist publication. “Because they based the export-control decision on [NSABB's] recommendations, the expectation is they will lift it,” says NSABB acting chair Paul Keim. That's not a foregone conclusion, the Dutch ministry spokesperson warns.

The fracas has led to a broader debate about dual-use research in the Netherlands. Fouchier “did everything he had to do” according to A Code of Conduct on Bio security, adopted by the Royal Academy in 2007, says Lous van Vloten-Doting, who chaired the panel that wrote the code. But the case has made it clear that an NSABB-like panel, preferably at the European level, is needed to weigh the risks and benefits of such studies, Van Vloten-Doting says. Ormel says he plans to introduce a motion in the House that asks the government to help establish such a panel.

Fouchier's H5N1 study proposal was green-lighted in 2007 by the Netherlands Commission on Genetic Modification (COGEM), a government advisory panel. The COGEM review focused on lab biosafety, but part of its remit is to inform the government about emerging ethical debates. “In retrospect, perhaps we should have looked at” the study's dual-use risks, says COGEM secretary Frank van der Wilk. “We missed it. … We didn't realize it would cause so much debate.” Fouchier is COGEM's acting chair and chair of its Medical and Veterinary Aspects subcommittee, but he recused himself during the 2007 review and had “no influence whatsoever” on its outcome, Van der Wilk says.

Meanwhile, one of the six NSABB members who still opposes full publication of Fouchier's paper has strongly criticized the March meeting in which NSABB reached its new decision. The gathering was “designed to produce the outcome that occurred,” and only “kicked the can down the road” in preventing future conflicts over potential dual-use studies, Michael Osterholm of the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, wrote in a letter to Amy Patterson, the National Institutes of Health official who oversees NSABB. Fouchier—who describes the last 6 months of debate as “a big pain”—declined to respond to Osterholm's letter, which was obtained by Science (http://scim.ag/flaw-flu).

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