H5N1 Researcher Continues Legal Battle

The Dutch scientist who mutated a strain of the avian flu virus to be transmissible between mammals is headed to appeals court to protect his right to publish the work unimpeded.

Bob Grant
Bob Grant
Nov 6, 2013

Avian influenza A H5N1 viruses (gold)WIKIMEDIA, CDC/COURTESY OF CYNTHIA GOLDSMITH; JACQUELINE KATZ; SHERIF R. ZAKIThe legal battle between Ron Fouchier and the Dutch government is dragging on, with the scientist’s employer, Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, appealing the September district court decision that legitimized the government’s requirement that Fouchier obtain an export license to publish his work. At issue is the potential for Fouchier’s research, which involves mutating H5N1 avain flu to become transmissible between ferrets, to be used by bioterrorists.

Fouchier published his initial report on the work in a June 2012 issue of Science, but only after obtaining an export license from the Dutch government under protest. Prior to the publication, a US biosecurity panel suggested that some of the results in Fouchier’s paper and a similar study from a group at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, should be redacted to guard against misuse of the information for nefarious purposes. This recommendation sparked a worldwide moratorium on such research, but the panel later reversed course and greenlighted the full publication of the work. In April 2012, Fouchier told Nature that he would “never apply for an export permit on a scientific manuscript for publication in a journal. We do not want to create a precedent here. We might end up in court indeed if they insist on censorship.”

Court is exactly where Fouchier ended up after Erasmus MC challenged the government’s insistence that the researcher obtain an export license to publish the paper. But a Dutch district court in Haarlem ruled that the government was well within its rights to require that Fouchier secure such a license, which the researcher and many in the scientific community viewed as an attack on academic freedom.

With Erasmus MC appealing that decision, the case now moves on to Court of Appeal in Amsterdam. Meanwhile, the European Society for Virology (ESV) is throwing its support behind Fouchier. ESV President Giorgio Palù recently wrote a letter to European Commission President José Manuel Barroso voicing his concern, according to ScienceInsider. “This Dutch ruling may have far-stretching implications for research and public and animal health within all EU Member States,” he wrote.