The Rotterdam-based virologists were commissioned by the American government institution National Institutes of Health (NIH) to carry out research on the dangerous H5N1 avian influenza virus. They discovered that this virus could easily change into a variant that is a threat to public health and they also discovered how this takes place. The information found by the researchers can be used to prevent the occurrence of a pandemic or to develop vaccines and medication before such pandemics occur. The best way to do this would be to publish the results in a scientific journal. Other scientists or people in the field tracking outbreaks could then easily and quickly use this data. However, it is feared that the research data could also be used to develop biological weapons if it falls into the wrong hands.
The NSABB has determined that the risks of publishing the research data outweigh the benefits and therefore call for certain data to be kept secret. They state that the research data may be shared with the scientific community, subject to an obligation of confidentiality. The Rotterdam-based researchers, however, state that confidentiality is almost impossible given the fact that the data has to be shared with hundreds of researchers and governments. Furthermore, academic and press freedom will be at stake as a result of the recommendation. This has never happened before.
Erasmus MC researchers are currently working on a new manuscript that complies with the recommendation made by the NSABB. In addition, they call for a more international approach to so-called dual use research, studies in which the results can be used for both good and evil purposes.