Mar 12, 2012 (CIDRAP News) – In a new twist in the ongoing controversy over publication of two studies involving H5N1 viruses with increased transmissibility, there are indications that the Dutch government may consider using export regulations to prevent full publication of the study by Ron Fouchier, PhD, and colleagues.
In a Mar 7 letter to the Dutch parliament, the country's minister of public health, welfare, and sport, Dr. E. I. Schippers, said an export permit is required for dissemination of detailed information about the H5N1 virus outside the European Union. If such a permit is requested, the government will consider the health and safety risks of granting it, the minister said.
In addition, a Mar 9 report in a Dutch newspaper, the Amsterdam-based Volkskrant, said that Henk Bleker, the nation's secretary for agriculture and foreign trade, thinks that the government could prevent publication of the virus "recipe" by denying an export license.
Fouchier's study and a similar one by Yoshihiro Kawaoka, DVM, PhD, of the University of Wisconsin in Madison, both deal with lab-modified H5N1 viruses that showed increased transmissibility in ferrets, which are considered the best animal models for studying human influenza. Fouchier submitted his paper to Science and Kawaoka offered his to Nature.
In December the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) recommended that key details of the two studies not be published out of concern that malefactors could use the data to generate highly dangerous viruses. The two journals have said they would comply if a way can be found to provide the details to scientists with a legitimate need for them.
But at a technical meeting hosted by the World Health Organization (WHO) last month, most of a group of flu experts and public health officials said that publishing the papers in redacted form and sharing the details with a select group would not be workable. They called for publishing the papers in full at a later date, after a campaign to educate the public about the research. Further WHO-hosted meetings are expected.
The Schippers letter offered the parliament (the States-General) a general update on the research by Fouchier and colleagues at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam. The letter, in Dutch, was posted on a government Web site, and CIDRAP News obtained a translation.
Much of the letter is devoted to describing the outcome of the WHO-hosted meeting on Feb 16 and 17. It says that the prospect of publishing the study raises critical questions about safety and proliferation of dangerous agents.
"Is there a proliferation risk associated with unlocking all research information and, if so, how do the risks relate to the benefits of public health identified by the consensus points of the technical consultation of the WHO?" Schippers wrote. "The Netherlands has insisted that the proliferation risks from releasing this knowledge as well as the advantages for public health have to be carried out first."
The letter then raises the export permit question, stating: "An export permit is required for export of the bird flu virus outside the European Union and for the transmission of detailed information about the virus. For the WHO consultation in Geneva on February 16-17, the Secretary of State for Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation issued this kind of license to a small group of health experts under strict conditions.
"If an export permit is requested for publication of (parts of) information, the Secretary of State for Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation will, in his judgment, weigh the interests for health, science and safety risks."
The letter goes on to say that the government seeks a "balanced judgment of this research and the publication of the results," weighing the advantages and disadvantages from all angles.
In response to an e-mailed request today, Fouchier told CIDRAP News he would not comment on the letter.
The Mar 9 story in the Volkskrant was brief. According to a machine translation, the story said the government is "intent on possibilities to prevent the recipe for the new flu virus from Rotterdam" from being shared with the rest of the world.
The story went on to say that Bleker, the secretary for agriculture and foreign trade, "thinks . . . the publication of the recipe can be avoided by refusing an export license." The report added some background information about the research but gave no further information about Bleker's views or intentions.
A spokesman for Blekder did not respond to a request for comment that was sent by e-mail this afternoon.
Dutch export-control page with link to Schippers letter
Mar 9 Volkskrant story (in Dutch)
Feb 17 CIDRAP News story "WHO H5N1 study group extends moratorium, calls for full publication"