Fouchier vs the Dutch government on influenza H5N1 research

ferretFrom Martin Enserink at ScienceInsider:

Virologist Ron Fouchier has suffered a loss in a legal battle with the Dutch government over the publication of his controversial H5N1 influenza research. On Friday, a Dutch district court ruled that the government was right to ask Fouchier to obtain an export license before sending two hotly debated papers out for publication.

Readers of this blog will remember the furor sparked by Fouchier’s experiments in 2011 in which he developed an avian influenza H5N1 isolate that could transmit among ferrets by aerosol. When Fouchier was ready to publish the results, the Dutch government required that Fouchier apply for an export license. In so doing they were applying EU regulations that are designed to prevent the spread of biological weapons.

Fouchier applied for and was granted an export license on 27 April 2012. Fouchier’s employer, Erasmus Medical Center, appealed the decision to require an export license for this type of work. It is this appeal that was recently denied by a Dutch district court.

Fouchier rightfully claims that such EU regulations put him at a disadvantage compared with other groups. For example, Kawaoka’s findings on aerosol-transmitted avian influenza H5N1 virus in ferrets were not subject to EU export rules and were published ahead of Fouchier’s paper. I can understand Fouchier’s position; science is very competitive and being the first to publish is a coveted position. I am not sure that this is an issue worth bringing to the courts: even though Fouchier published after Kawaoka, most virologists credit the observations to both laboratories. The Dutch government should recognize that its scientists must be internationally competitive and expedite such future requests.

In my view, there is a larger issue at stake here: what constitutes research that requires an export license? I would argue that the avian influenza H5N1 virus that Fouchier produced is not a biological weapon. Remember that while this virus could transmit among caged ferrets by aerosol, it was markedly attenuated. In other words, gaining the ability to transmit by aerosol came at a fitness cost that reduced the virulence of the virus in ferrets. Such a virus is not a biological weapon, and should not have been subject to EU export requirements.

I do not know who in the Dutch government reviews such export license requests, but hopefully the next time Fouchier or any other virologist applies, there will be knowledgeable virologists involved in making the correct decision.