Publication ban on virus research: security or censorship?

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On Monday, Dutch experts will debate whether or not Dr Ron Fouchier should be allowed to publish the results of his research, which has created a potentially dangerous strain of the H5N1 bird flu virus. The United States biosecurity watchdog has withdrawn its objections to publication. Dutch Deputy Minister for Innovation Henk Bleker, on the other hand, still fears the research could be used by terrorists. Fouchier rejects any ban on publication of his work. A row is in the making.

Fouchier's research

Ron Fouchier and his colleagues studied whether the H5N1 virus could mutate into a strain which would be dangerously contagious for humans. At present, no such strain has occurred in nature. They produced a highly contagious strain which could be passed between ferrets. Theoretically, only a few steps would be needed to produce a similar virus which was life-threatening to humans. Fouchier’s research has resulted in his being given a place in the Time Magazine Top 100 of most influential people.

Deputy Minister Bleker has announced that he’s imposing a ban on publication – in the journal, Science - of the research which was carried out at the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam. He cites the rules laid down in the government’s User Guide on Strategic Goods and Services on the export of sensitive information.

Fouchier has yet to apply formally for an 'export licence' to publish his research findings, but the ministry has already said it will refuse the application. The researcher, however, now intends to offer the article for publication without it being seen by a review commission. He says the demand amounts to 'scientific censorship'. In an interview in the scientific journal Nature, he says he’s prepared to take the matter to court.

Minister Bleker’s gagging move has been greeted with surprise both in the Netherlands and abroad - despite initial misgivings, the US watchdog, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, has announced it has no problem with publication.

Some, however, understand the Dutch government’s tough stance. Professor Ben Ale, an expert on security issues and disaster management, finds it perfectly reasonable that governments should give careful consideration to the publication of information on organisms or other things which could cause problems on a global scale. “The researchers in this case acknowledge the mutated influenza virus could cause a pandemic. That seems to me worrying enough.”

Scientific research into viruses is a medical necessity. The work can, however, also aid the development of biological weapons. This dual use to which research can be put led in 2007 to the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences (KNAW) drawing up a code of conduct in relation to biosecurity. The document considers the risks of scientific publications.
“The aim of the code of conduct is to make scientists aware of the possible risks, not to hinder their research,”
explains Dr Koos van der Bruggen of Leiden University.

Initially, the US biosecurity watchdog NSABB came out against publication, not only of the Dutch research but also of similar findings by a Japanese-US team of scientists. However, the researchers were not alone in resisting a ban: the World Health Organisation called for openness in the interests of combatting the virus. The problems appeared to have been resolved after the Rotterdam researchers submitted an adjusted version of their findings - that is, until the Dutch government came up with new objections.

Question of principle
A scientific publication has never before been blocked in this way in the Netherlands. Van der Bruggen:

“This is the result of the Netherlands not having the structure to ensure that a good decision prevails. In the US, the NSABB fulfils this function. There it’s possible to have open discussion, which actually means that an earlier decision can be rescinded.”

The government has invited civil servants, virologists and security specialists to debate the issue on Monday. “Hopefully, the outcome of the debate will offer Minister Bleker an elegant way out,” says Van der Bruggen.

He believes that fundamental scientific research is involved for which no export licence is needed. If the ban is upheld, it could have far-reaching consequences for other dual-use research. “This is a question of principle. I hope the minister won’t dodge the debate.”