White House Responds to Congressman's Questions About H5N1 Flu Papers

White House science adviser John Holdren has replied to questions asked last month by Representative Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) about how the Obama Adminstration has handled the controversy surrounding two studies that showed how to make the H5N1 avian influenza virus transmissible between mammals.

On 1 March, Sensenbrenner—a former head of the House of Representatives committees on science and the judiciary, and currently vice chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, sent a "fact-finding letter" to Holdren. It asked a number of questions about how the government reviews potential "dual-use research of concern" (DURC) that might be used for good or evil. It also observed that the Obama Administration's handling of the flu papers controversy "appeared ad hoc, delayed, and inadequate."

In his 9 April response, Holdren wrote that "the circumstances surrounding the recent review of H5N1 manuscripts are unprecedented." It marked the first time a government advisory body, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), had recommended withholding information from a scientific paper, he added. "Thus, the [U.S. government] until now had not needed to have a system in place specifically for restricting dissemination of the results of DURC." But NSABB ultimately supported publication of the papers, he noted, after government reviews revealed "serious legal and procedural hurdles to the establishment of such a dissemination system that could not be overcome on a timescale that would be relevant to the publication of these papers." The government has issued a new policy for reviewing taxpayer-funded research for DURC potential, he noted.

In a statement, Sensenbrenner said he was only partly satisfied:

In his response, Dr. Holdren wrote that, until now, the United States government has "not needed to have a system in place" for restricting dissemination of dual use research or concern because this is the first time the NSABB recommended restricting publication. I believe the Administration needs to be more proactive than that and prepare for possible threats before they occur. The new policy is a good, if belated, first step, and I will be watching its implementation closely.