Bird Flu Studies Mired In Export Control Law Limbo : Shots - Health News Export controls designed to restrict international trade in weapons are keeping scientists from sharing their research on the bird flu virus.
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Bird Flu Studies Mired In Export Control Law Limbo

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Bird Flu Studies Mired In Export Control Law Limbo

Bird Flu Studies Mired In Export Control Law Limbo

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It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

An effort to keep information out of the wrong hands has led to the strange story of a manuscript kept from leaving the U.S.

INSKEEP: Scientists have been researching bird flu. That led to concern that someone could use the research to perfect biological warfare.

MONTAGNE: In recent weeks, we've told you of debate over publishing bird flu research. The U.S. recently approved publication.

INSKEEP: But now, a manuscript is being blocked from publication by a law preventing the export of technology that could be used as a weapon. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: The two studies on bird flu were done in the U.S. and the Netherlands. The experiments showed how to make this dangerous virus more contagious. Some people worried that revealing the details would be like publishing the recipe for a bioweapon.

Last year, government officials asked an advisory committee to weigh in. Michael Imperiale is a microbiologist at the University of Michigan, who serves on the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity. He said the board recommended publishing limited information, and letting only some people see the full details.

MICHAEL IMPERIALE: Because the government led us to understand that there would be a way to share the detailed information with individuals who had a need to know.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Like public health officials around the world, who are trying to prepare for a future flu pandemic. But when the government asked the committee to meet again a couple weeks ago, the message was different.

IMPERIALE: We were told that due to various legal and security impediments, that it wouldn't be possible to have a sharing system for only some people and not others.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's one big reason why this time, when the committee weighed the risks and benefits, it seemed important to publish everything.

So what were the legal and security impediments to a more limited distribution? One major complication was export control laws. These laws limit the international shipment of technologies that could be used for weapons - things like rocket parts, or big vats used to brew up microbes. And that's not all.

ALICE GAST: The more complex part of export controls is when it comes to information, rather than equipment.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Alice Gast is president of Lehigh University. She recently co-chaired an expert panel that examined how these laws affect science. She says information produced by basic research is normally exempt.

GAST: The fundamental research exemption is valid, as long as you are freely and openly sharing the results of the research.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: But if researchers agree to limit access, that exemption no longer applies. That's what happened with bird flu. While publication was on hold, both U.S. and Dutch export controls kicked in. Scientists could no longer freely share information with colleagues overseas. For example, when the advisory committee met to reconsider its earlier decision, special licenses had to be issued so people could read new versions of the research reports, and they only could see paper copies that they had to return.

Now, even though the committee said go ahead and publish, one of the research teams is still grappling with export controls. Ron Fouchier is a virologist at Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands. At a meeting in London last week, he said he could not discuss his work in detail.

RON FOUCHIER: Because I've been notified by the Dutch government that in contrast to the U.S. government, they have not lifted their export control restrictions.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: In an email, Fouchier told NPR that export controls were preventing him from submitting his revised manuscript to the journal Science. He said on April 23rd, he'll be at a meeting organized by the Dutch government, to discuss this whole issue.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

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