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Controversial bird flu study clears last publication hurdle; gets export permit

04/27/2012 02:18 EDT | Updated 06/27/2012 05:12 EDT
A controversial bird flu study has cleared the final hurdle on its long road to publication, with the Dutch government granting the work an export permit.

Dutch virologist Ron Fouchier confirmed he received notification on Friday that the government had cleared his study, meaning he can submit it to the U.S.-based journal Science.

Fouchier said he planned to send the paper later Friday evening and hoped the work would be published by the journal within a few weeks.

"I will be very happy once this comes out. Then we can start talking about the contents of the paper rather than hearsay," he said in an interview from Rotterdam, where he works at the Erasmus Medical Centre.

Fouchier's paper was one of two contested studies looking at how H5N1 viruses could be mutated to the point that they could transmit through the air among mammals. In the case of the second study, led by virologist Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the work involved creating a hybrid of H5N1 avian and H1N1 human flu viruses.

Kawaoka's work has been accepted for publication in the British-based journal Nature.

The studies were done with ferrets serving as a proxy for people. While ferrets don't always predict how flu viruses will behave in humans, the animals are considered the best available animal model for flu.

A spokesperson for Science said it is too soon to say how quickly the Fouchier paper can be published.

Ginger Pinholster said the journal would like to synchronize publication with Nature, so that the two papers would be published at the same time. But she said it's not yet clear that will be workable.

Both studies have been tied up for months after a panel of American biosecurity experts advised the U.S. government to ask the journals to withhold details of how the work was done.

The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, or NSABB, said the studies were so-called dual-use research of concern, legitimate science that could be used to harm public health or national security.

After months of debate within the scientific community and on the pages of journals — and after Fouchier clarified what he called misconceptions about the lethality of the viruses he created — the NSABB withdrew its objection to publication at a meeting held in late March.

But the Dutch government insisted that Fouchier's team apply for an export permit to send the work outside the country, in this case to the American journal. The Netherlands is one of a number of countries that have laws restricting the export of goods or data that pose security concerns.

Fouchier had originally said he would not apply for an export permit, saying he had legal advice that suggested basic science is exempt from the law. But in the end, his team did apply — though they filed a letter of protest contesting the government's right to apply the law to the work.

"We do not want to set a precedent by doing this," he said. "And we expect that after the permit is granted that we will debate with the Dutch government about the necessity of applying for this type of permit."

There could soon be reason to again test the system. Fouchier said his team has another study going through the publication process and one more with much of the work completed.

There is yet another study stemming from this work, but it cannot be completed until the moratorium on H5N1 transmission studies is lifted. Flu scientists voluntarily agreed not to do this type of research while the controversy over the Fouchier and Kawaoka papers was still unsettled.

Fouchier said he's not sure when he and other teams will resume work, but suggested the moratorium will last awhile longer yet, at least until after Nature and Science publish his paper and Kawaoka's paper.

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