Leading virologists have written to the president of the European Commission to urge him to clarify how laws designed to curb the proliferation of biological weapons apply to the publication of research on dangerous pathogens. The move by the European Society for Virology (ESV) comes after a Dutch court in September upheld a government order that scientists who engineered forms of H5N1 avian influenza to make them transmissible between mammals needed to seek an export permit before publishing such work.
The ESV’s five-page letter to José Manuel Barroso, dated 16 October, warns that the court ruling sets an unwelcome precedent. H5N1 is just one of more than 100 dangerous human, animal and plant pathogens and toxins that fall under European Union (EU) export-control legislation from 2009. This means, say the virologists, that any EU scientist who works on one of the listed pathogens could be forced to apply for an export permit before publishing their research.
They write that to better inform courts and policy-makers on scientific issues related to biosecurity laws, the European Commission should consider creating an equivalent of the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity — an independent committee in Bethesda, Maryland, that advises on issues of biosecurity and dual-use research (findings that could be adapted for harmful purposes).
The ESV also backs the case of Ron Fouchier, a virologist at the Erasmus Medical Center (EMC) in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, whose team engineered the H5N1 strains. It was Fouchier’s attempt to publish this work that led to the export-licence order. He has been fighting it — and on 31 October, the EMC contested the ruling in the Amsterdam Court of Appeal.