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H5N1 Merry-Go-Round

by Rudy M. Baum
April 30, 2012 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 90, ISSUE 18

Let’s review.

Sometime last year, two independent research groups submitted papers to Science and Nature describing experiments involving the H5N1 avian flu virus. Both groups had created strains of H5N1 that could be transmitted through the air between mammals, a trait that wild-type H5N1 viruses do not possess.

The head of one of the groups, Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands, had given a talk on the work at an influenza conference in Europe in September. Although Scientific American reported on the talk and the conference, the research did not garner much attention. In November, the Center for Infectious Disease Research & Policy (CIDRAP) at the University of Minnesota reported on its website that the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) was scrutinizing the Dutch research because of its potential “dual use” nature. Still, no one seemed to pay much attention.

Then all hell broke loose. On Dec. 20, 2011, the National Institutes of Health, which had funded both research groups, put out a press release stating that NSABB was recommending that the two papers—the one from Fouchier’s group and one from a group at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, led by Yoshihiro Kawaoka—not be published in full (C&EN, Jan. 2, page 9). NSABB recommended publication of the general conclusions of the papers but asked that the manuscripts not include details that could be used by terrorists.

Science and Nature agreed to delay publishing the papers and to possibly publish redacted versions of them, but Science Editor-in-Chief Bruce Alberts insisted in a statement that, if the papers were not going to be published in full, the government needed to develop a mechanism to get the details of the research into the hands of responsible influenza researchers.

Fast-forward: Science and Nature published Policy Forums and Comments on the pros and cons of publishing the research. Fouchier and Kawaoka agreed to suspend their research for 60 days. Closed-door meetings were held in Washington, D.C., and Europe. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), vice chair of the House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space & Technology, wrote to John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy, asking, essentially, what’s going on here? In his response, Holdren admitted that the U.S. didn’t have a policy for handling such papers and that export controls made it difficult to develop a mechanism for disseminating the information to researchers who needed to see it.

On March 29, a “United States Government Policy for Oversight of Life Sciences Dual Use Research of Concern” appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, on the website of NIH’s Office of Biotechnology Activities (C&EN, April 9, page 7). The new policy was not identified as being associated with any particular government office.

On March 29–30, NSABB met to review “revised” versions of the papers from Fouchier and Kawaoka. The 18-member board voted unanimously to recommend that the “revised” Kawaoka paper be published in full. It voted 12-6 that the “revised” Fouchier paper “should be communicated, but not as currently written.” In other words, more revisions. In some ways, this looked like a backdoor path toward implementing NSABB’s original recommendation to block publication of the original papers without admitting it.

Not so fast. On April 12, CIDRAP Director Michael Osterholm, one of the six NSABB members who voted against publishing Fouchier’s paper, wrote a seven-page letter to Amy Patterson, NIH associate director for science policy, blasting the process by which NSABB reversed itself on the two papers. Osterholm charged that the agenda and the speakers at the meeting were “designed to produce the outcome that occurred.” On April 23, Sensenbrenner wrote to NIH Director Francis Collins, asking him to explain why NIH asked NSABB to revisit its original decision and what steps were being taken to investigate Osterholm’s allegations of bias (see page 9).

Does anybody know what is going on?

Thanks for reading.



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