Dutch Court Upholds Rule Requiring Permission to Publish Avian Flu Data

National Journal

A court in the Netherlands ruled in favor of a Dutch regulation mandating government permission be granted before sensitive research into dangerous diseases such as the avian flu is disseminated to the public, the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy reported on Thursday.

Virologist Ron Fouchier of the Erasmus Medical Center had filed an appeal to the Dutch government's decision last year requiring him to obtain an export permit before he could publish research results in the journal Science. The findings showed how only a few genetic alterations were needed to change the H5N1 avian flu into a disease that more easily could be transmitted by air from one mammal to another.

H5N1 bird flu has killed the majority -- nearly 60 percent -- of the hundreds of people it has infected in the last decade. While the disease is mostly a threat to chickens, some experts think avian influenza could cause the next major deadly pandemic if it evolves to more easily be transmitted to humans.

Advocates of publishing the Erasmus research contended it would help spur public health and pharmaceutical understanding about the way the disease could in the future. Biodefense analysts, however, argued that bad actors could seize upon the data to develop a more lethal disease targeting humans.

The Dutch government said prior-permission to publish the research was mandated by 2009 European Union rules intended to limit the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The regulations cover serous flu strains and accompanying technical information.

In reaching its ruling, the Dutch court rejected Fournier's argument that his avian bird flu study constituted basic research -- which is exempted from the EU anti-WMD regulations. The court ruled that scientists do not have the authority to determine whether their own scientific projects constitute basic research.

Fouchier in an interview said he wanted to appeal the court's finding though he would hold off until he has received advice about possible next steps from Erasmus' legal team.

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