José Manuel Barroso

José Manuel Barroso

European Commission

Critics of H5N1 Studies Lobby European Commission

The European Commission needs to take an interest in the controversy over so-called gain-of-function studies with dangerous viruses and should initiate a risk-benefit analysis for this line of research, 56 scientists from more than a dozen countries write in a letter sent to commission President José Manuel Barroso. The 18 December letter accuses the European Society for Virology (ESV) of making "misleading scientific statements" when it lobbied Barroso in support of the hotly debated studies 2 months ago.

At issue are studies to find out which mutations might make dangerous viruses like the H5N1 avian influenza strain more easily transmissible between humans. Critics of such research argue that its risks, such as an accidental escape from the lab, don't outweigh the potential benefits.

ESV urged Barroso, who heads the European Union's executive arm, to get involved after a Dutch court ruled that virologist Ron Fouchier of Erasmus MC in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, can't publish such studies with the H5N1 virus without first asking the Dutch government for permission. (Fouchier has appealed that decision.) In its 16 October letter, ESV argued that the ruling could lead to delays in the dissemination of scientific information and inequality between scientists from different European countries.

In their own letter to Barroso and several other members of the European Commission, Fouchier's critics charge there are "misstatements" in the ESV letter; for instance, it's not true that the research was used only "to reproduce what nature already selected," the group writes, because Fouchier's studies turned up viruses never seen before. The group offers to hold a scientific briefing for the commission and calls on Barroso to organize a rigorous risk-benefit analysis for "decision makers in Europe and worldwide."

Among the signatories—some of whom are ESV members—are German virologist and Nobel laureate Harald zur Hausen; Roel Coutinho, the former head of the Centre for Infectious Disease Control in the Netherlands; and Adel Mahmoud, a former Merck Vaccines president now at Princeton University.