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Netherlands Clears Bird Flu Findings for Release

The Netherlands has authorized the publication of scientific research that yielded a more transmissible version of the avian influenza virus, Science magazine reported on Friday (see GSN, April 25).

Dutch Agriculture and Foreign Trade Minister Henk Bleker's determination enables virologist Ron Fouchier, who oversaw the research at the Erasmus University Medical Center, to submit an updated version of his group's findings to Science.

The export authorization "is in my inbox," Fouchier said. "Now we can move on."

Bioterrorism concerns prompted the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity last year to call for withholding some data from the project, as well as a comparable effort completed at the University of Wisconsin (Madison). Following submission of new data from the two scientific teams, NSABB members in March voted unanimously to support complete release of the Wisconsin findings and 12-6 in favor of unredacted publication of the work by the Dutch team, according to a previous report.

The Dutch government had previously indicated it might use national export controls to restrict circulation of the findings by Fouchier's team amid continued worries that the work in the wrong hands could be put to illicit uses. That stance prompted protests by Fouchier, who requested a license to release the research article while challenging the legal basis for mandating such approval.

Bleker's ministry on Friday said the official had taken into account "all of the benefits and risks of publication of the avian influenza research, and has especially looked at the freedom of research and publication, health and safety.

"He has also taken into consideration insights from national and international experts in the areas of security, health, and research; the positive advice of the U.S. National Science Advisory Board on Biosecurity (NSABB) to the U.S. government about publication of the research; and the U.S. government's decision to follow that advice," the office added in its statement. The Netherlands on April 23 brought together research veterans and threat evaluation specialists to consider the report's positive aspects and potential dangers.

The scientist welcomed the authorization to release the findings, but added the move was expected. Blocking publication of the data "would have been strange" in light of the U.S. biodefense board's reversal on the matter and a similar recommendation by a group of specialists convened by the World Health Organization (see GSN, Feb. 21; Martin Enserink, Science, April 27).

The study by Fouchier's team must still undergo academic vetting prior to publication, the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy quoted media organizations as reporting previously (Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy release, April 27).

Meanwhile, a key U.S. lawmaker said he would continue to scrutinize moves by the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity on the flu dispute while monitoring implementation of plans for the systematic federal assessment of possible threats linked to U.S.-financed research (see GSN, April 24).

"The U.S. government is woefully unprepared for dealing with dual use research of concern -- research that, while conducted for a legitimate scientific purpose, could be dangerous if misused, House Science, Space and Technology Vice Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) wrote in a commentary published last week by the Washington Times. To support his assertion, the lawmaker referred to the debate over the avian influenza findings, as well as allegations by one NSABB member that a branch of the National Institutes of Health had rigged panel deliberations to promote unredacted release of the research (see GSN, April 16).

Plans announced last month to examine federally funded research for possible dangers, "if properly implemented ... could help identify sensitive research," the lawmaker wrote (see GSN, March 30).

Still, the policy "does nothing to address the government’s inability to control its dissemination if necessary," he said. "By asking the NSABB to reconvene and steering the board toward reconsidering its recommendation, the administration has simply kicked that can down the road" (U.S. Representative James Sensenbrenner, Washington Times, April 24).

NTI Analysis

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