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The Netherlands grants export licence for mutant flu work

The Dutch government has agreed to grant an export licence to allow Ron Fouchier, a virologist at the Erasmus Medical University in Rotterdam, to publish his work on H5N1 avian influenza in Science.

Fouchier’s paper is one of two reporting the creation of forms of the H5N1 virus capable of spreading between mammals. The other, by Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and the University of Tokyo, and his colleagues, has already been submitted to Nature. The risks inherent in the research had led to discussions over whether some details of the work should be censored (see Nature‘s news special on the mutant flu saga).

Fouchier had planned to defy Dutch export control laws and submit his manuscript to Science without applying for the licence, a move which might have earned him 6 years in jail. But earlier this week he agreed to apply for the licence “under protest” (see Mutant-flu researcher backs down on plan to publish without permission). Fouchier and his colleagues maintained that their work was basic research, and so should be exempt from export controls. But Henk Bleker, the Dutch minister for agriculture and foreign trade, disagreed, and in granting the licence, said in a statement: “although some of the techniques used by Prof. Fouchier might be of a fundamental scientific nature, his research questions and results certainly are mainly of applied scientific nature”.


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    Katherine Zeta said:

    Dangerous thoughts? RON FOUCHIER, of the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam, is the lead author of a controversial paper which lays out how deadly H5N1 avian influenza, or bird flu, can be made deadlier still. He believes this information should be widely disseminated, so that biologists can work on drugs or vaccines to combat the new strain—which Dr Fouchier and his team created by combining five flu mutations that are currently (and separately) circulating in the wild.Others, however, disagree. The authorities in the Netherlands are pondering stopping the paper’s publication because of fears its findings could be misused by hostile governments or terrorists. That pondering has been going on since December, and Dr Fouchier is growing restless. A decision is expected soon, but he recently went as far as saying that he would disregard it, if it went against him, and would publish regardless. He has now softened his stance, but defiance could see him in prison.

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