Tuesday, March 21, 2006

No more business as usual for flu data

It appears the clamor over failure to share flu data is starting to bear fruit. Nick Zamiska is reporting in the Wall Street Journal that WHO is seriously discussing the mertis of opening their password protected flu sequence database to more scientists. Good, but not good enough. It needs to be made public. WHO is also about to ask its member states (n = 192) to pledge they will share virus data. Again, public accessibility is not yet explicitly on the table. It needs to be.

First, credit where credit is due. A public call for openness by a noted Italian flu researcher, Dr. Ilaria Capua, followed by an Editorial in Nature, one of the world's leading scientific journals, then an editorial in the New York Times and importantly, investigative news articles by excellent journalists like Zamiska, Helen Branswell of Canadian Press, Dennis Normile in the journal Science and Nature's Declan Butler (who was among the first to discuss the problem of failure to share sequences by CDC [here and here] six months ago) has helped shake some of this loose. (A few of our posts as background here, here and here). A handful of journalists with real expertise are making a difference. Our hat is off to them.

WHO could do more.
WHO officials have said they would like to make the information public but have emphasized that many countries would balk at sharing data with them if the agency didn't agree to keep it private.

The database contains some 2,300 genetic sequences of the H5N1 virus, around one-third of the world's known sequences. The WHO hasn't elaborated on details of the database.
WHO could elaborate, at least to the point of telling us which countries are balking at sharing data. Zamiska's story suggests many are involved:
According to a person familiar with the database's contents, most of the sequences hidden from public view are from sick birds in Indonesia, China and Vietnam. The database also contains sequences from Cambodia, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Mongolia, Russia, South Korea, Thailand, Turkey and the United Kingdom, this person said.
Butler's story in Nature in September reported CDC was also not as forthcoming as it should be. And the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture has been a sore point with WHO when it comes to sharing isolates. Dislodging the data from these other countries could have a salutary effect on China at a critical time. They are reported to be on the verge of turning over a large number of viral isolates (not just the sequences).

Now is the time to put on the pressure to set a standard we should require from the world scientific community. We can no longer afford the old academic privileges for avian influenza data. No more business as usual.