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. The ruling, published yesterday (Dutch), could provide new roadblocks for Fouchier’s research in the future.
At issue is Fouchier’s hotly debated paper showing that a few mutations can make H5N1, a virus that normally infects birds, transmissible through the air between ferrets, which was published in Science in June 2012. The fight also involved an accompanying paper published in the same issue in which Fouchier and others tried to gauge the likelihood that such viruses arise spontaneously in nature.
The Dutch government considered sending the papers to Science a form of “export” and required Fouchier to formally ask official permission first. In doing so, the government correctly interpreted E.U. regulations aimed at preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and so-called “dual use” technology that could be used for good or evil, the court in Haarlem said.
The decision means that future H5N1 transmissibility studies—which Fouchier resumed after a worldwide moratorium ended in January—would require an official stamp of approval as well. The same could be true for similar studies involving H7N9, a strain that emerged in China this spring, because the government could consider any studies that give the virus new capabilities as proving dual use findings.