Court Bans Scientific Publications on Viruses
THE HAGUE, 28/09/13 - Scientists that carry out research into disease-carrying viruses and bacteria must in future apply for an export licence if they want to publish this in an international journal, according to a ruling by a Haarlem district court in a case about a much-discussed study of a deadly variant of bird flu.
The ruling can have far-reaching international consequences for virologists and microbiologists in Europe who research dangerous disease-causers like ebola and dandy (breakbone) fever. The court based itself on a European regulation on bio-terrorism. For the first time, it is now clear that with this regulation, the distribution of scientific knowledge can also be restricted.
The court case was brought by the Rotterdam Erasmus Medisch Centrum, employer of virologist Ron Fouchier. Two years ago, Foucher succeeded in transforming the bird-flu virus H5N1 in such a way that it could be transmitted via the air. If this were to happen in nature, a deadly epidemic could be unleashed.
The economic affairs ministry initially banned Fouchier from publishing the results in Science magazine because it involved knowledge that could be abused by terrorists. After a lengthy international tug-of-war, Fouchier received an exemption after all. Erasmus Medisch Centrum then wanted a ruling in principle on the question of whther the ban was legally correct.
The court however takes the view that the research was not fundamental but practical science, and contained information for the production of the virus as weapon. Fouchier spoke in a reaction of an “astonishing” verdict that violates academic freedom. “Scientists will become dependent on a customs official who has to put on his stamp.”
The judges acknowledge that the licence requirement hampers the accessibility of scientific research, but say it is more important to combat the distribution of biological weapons. It is not up to scientists to judge whether their research forms a danger, according to the court.