ROTTERDAM, THE NETHERLANDS—They've become known as the Kawaoka and Fouchier papers. But Yoshihiro Kawaoka and Ron Fouchier rarely set foot in the highsecurity labs where the experimental work on their two highly controversial H5N1 studies was done. That work—concocting mutant viruses, inoculating ferrets, and testing whether they'd infect others—was carried out by younger researchers who have remained invisible during the past 8 months. Yet for them, the stakes were just as high—higher, perhaps, because a paper in Science or Nature can be a critical career booster.
Earlier this week, Sander Herfst, a virology postdoc at Erasmus MC here and the first author of Fouchier's paper, published on page 1534 of this issue of Science, was getting the champagne ready and announcing a lab party on the bulletin boards. “We're incredibly happy,” he says.
While Fouchier gave interviews, traveled to meetings, and lobbied to get his paper published, Herfst stayed in the background, as did Ph.D. students Eefje Schrauwen and Martin Linster, the second and third authors, respectively. Once the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) got involved, “it was clear that this was being discussed at a level where we didn't belong,” Schrauwen says.
The same was happening at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where foot soldiers in Kawaoka's lab spent months waiting and worrying whether their paper would ever get published, Masaki Imai, the first author, wrote in an e-mail to Science. (Nature finally published it last month.) Imai, who is Japanese, obtained a Ph.D. at the University of Hokkaido in Japan, as did the second and third authors, Tokiko Watanabe and Masato Hatta.
In both studies, it was these bench scientists who saw the first signs that they had created new strains of the H5N1 virus that were transmissible from one ferret to another through sneezing and coughing—a finding they realized would be huge news. In Rotterdam, it happened in late June 2011, when a PCR test suggested that a ferret housed in a cage adjacent to an infected one had traces of the H5N1 virus in its airways. “We were very excited,” Herfst says. “When we showed it to Ron, he just said: ‘Calm down, and do it again. It may be an error.’”
It wasn't. But while he expected to make headlines, Herfst says he never imagined that the paper would get a red light from the NSABB and become the focus of a heated international debate about the limits of academic freedom. Watching the flood of news coverage on TV, “it was strange to think that we had created all of that in our lab,” Schrauwen says. “I thought that people would understand how important this kind of work is,” Watanabe wrote.
The issue dominated lunch breaks at the lab but began to surface in private conversations, as well. A friend who had read the news stories but didn't know Herfst was involved warned him to watch out “because they are doing some pretty dangerous things at Erasmus.” Others asked critical questions: Was this study really necessary? Linster says he could usually convince them. “Debates about animal experiments are more difficult,” he says.
Members of both teams, however, worry that the controversy may deter budding scientists from entering the field. “They might be afraid or feel anxious or apprehensive about rejection of papers as a result of biosecurity concerns,” Imai wrote. Indeed, a postdoc planning to come to Rotterdam won't work on H5N1, Herfst says. But Hatta thinks it won't be a problem. “Seeking the truth is the job of the scientists. I think nothing affects their motivations,” he wrote.
Now that both papers are published, Herfst hopes the moratorium on H5N1 transmissibility studies will be lifted soon (see p. 1496). “We have a long list of interesting things we'd like to do,” he says. But Herfst and his colleagues realize that that debate, too, is held well above their pay grade.