Netherlands Overhauls Biosecurity Rules as Avian Flu Dispute Simmers

Health workers remove dead chickens from a Nepalese poultry farm hit by a suspected avian influenza outbreak in 2013. The Netherlands is revamping its system for regulating sensitive biological research amid an ongoing controversy over a Dutch-based study that modified H5N1 bird flu in lab settings.
National Journal
Diane Barnes
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Diane Barnes
March 28, 2014, 10:27 a.m.

The Neth­er­lands is re­vamp­ing its bio­lo­gic­al reg­u­lat­ory re­gime after Dutch sci­ent­ists altered avi­an in­flu­enza to be more con­ta­gious.

The forth­com­ing policy will be “com­pre­hens­ive,” a Dutch For­eign Af­fairs Min­istry of­fi­cial told Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire.

New rules are to take in­to ac­count “les­sons learned” from an on­go­ing dis­pute over the H5N1 bird flu modi­fic­a­tion re­search of vir­o­lo­gist Ron Fouch­i­er, said Ayse Aydin, an of­fi­cial with the se­cur­ity policy de­part­ment of the min­istry’s non­pro­lif­er­a­tion and dis­arm­a­ment di­vi­sion.

The re­view would ac­count for all rel­ev­ant “se­cur­ity-re­lated is­sues,” as well as com­pli­ance with in­ter­na­tion­al con­ven­tions, he said in e-mailed re­sponses to ques­tions.

Aydin de­clined to elab­or­ate on the policy pri­or to its un­veil­ing, but said au­thors would con­sider find­ings from a Decem­ber re­port by the Roy­al Neth­er­lands Academy of Arts and Sci­ences.

In one of its re­com­mend­a­tions, the of­fi­cial Dutch body called for the cre­ation of a new gov­ern­ment pan­el that would is­sue non­bind­ing guid­ance on pro­pos­als to con­duct stud­ies with pos­sible bio­lo­gic­al-weapon ap­plic­a­tions.

Aydin said he ex­pec­ted the new policy to be made pub­lic at one of two mul­ti­lat­er­al gath­er­ings tied to the Bio­lo­gic­al Weapons Con­ven­tion: A meet­ing of ex­perts sched­uled for Aug. 4-8, or a meet­ing of states parties sched­uled for Dec. 1-5.

“We are ab­so­lutely will­ing to con­tin­ue our dis­cus­sion when the new bi­o­se­c­ur­ity policy has been com­pleted,” the of­fi­cial ad­ded.

News of the policy make-over came amid an on­go­ing con­tro­versy tied to Fouch­i­er’s re­search — per­formed at Erasmus Med­ic­al Cen­ter in the Dutch city of Rot­ter­dam — which mod­i­fied the H5N1 vir­us to spread through the air between mam­mals. The United States un­der­wrote the Dutch-based study, as well as a sim­il­ar in­quiry in Wis­con­sin, in an ef­fort to bet­ter un­der­stand how H5N1 could evolve in nature to more ser­i­ously threaten hu­mans.

A U.S. biode­fense ad­vis­ory board placed both stud­ies un­der in­tense pub­lic scru­tiny in 2011, when it sug­ges­ted that either re­search ef­fort could equip would-be bi­o­ter­ror­ists with a re­cipe for un­leash­ing a deadly pan­dem­ic. Nat­ur­ally oc­cur­ring avi­an flu is re­l­at­ively dif­fi­cult for hu­mans to catch, but kills more than half of those who do get in­fec­ted.

The au­thors’ sub­sequent cla­ri­fic­a­tions helped al­le­vi­ate fears about the two spe­cif­ic stud­ies and paved the way for each to be pub­lished in 2012. However, a broad­er de­bate has per­sisted over fu­ture reg­u­la­tion of oth­er so-called “gain-of-func­tion” patho­gen re­search.

Gain-of-func­tion stud­ies de­lib­er­ately cul­tiv­ate dis­ease agents with at­trib­utes that do not yet ex­ist in nat­ur­ally oc­cur­ring strains, which many re­search­ers say is ne­ces­sary in an ef­fort to fight pos­sible fu­ture forms of dis­ease. Changes in­tro­duced to the H5N1 vir­us by Fouch­i­er’s team en­abled the agent to bind more eas­ily to cell re­cept­ors in mam­mals.

The re­search con­tro­versy also has played out in the Dutch leg­al sys­tem, where Fouch­i­er has chal­lenged the Dutch gov­ern­ment’s right to de­mand li­cen­sure of sim­il­ar sens­it­ive data be­fore it can be trans­mit­ted to oth­er coun­tries. Last Au­gust, the sci­ent­ist joined oth­er vir­o­lo­gists in call­ing for fu­ture gain-of-func­tion stud­ies to fo­cus on an­oth­er avi­an flu vir­us, called H7N9.

Fouch­i­er lost his ini­tial leg­al bid on the li­cens­ing dis­pute last Septem­ber. In Novem­ber, he ap­pealed to a high­er Dutch court.

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