Monday, March 13, 2006

Teaching old dogs new tricks

This is long overdue:
A leading scientist in the field of genetic sequencing is calling on publicly funded U.S. researchers and research organizations to throw open their collections of H5N1 avian flu viruses to allow others to work toward lessening the pandemic threat the virus poses.

Steven Salzberg wants the U.S. Centers for Disease Control as well as researchers funded by the National Institutes of Health to place their virus sequence data in open-access databanks on an as-processed basis. He hopes such a move would entice scientists elsewhere, as well as governments in H5N1-afflicted countries, to end a pattern of virus hoarding many believe is undermining the world's ability to battle H5N1.

"I think what ought to happen is that the U.S., starting with people funded by NIH and the CDC itself ought to start releasing all of their data and all of their samples — and lead by example," says Salzberg, director of the Center for Bioinformatics and Computational Biology at the University of Maryland.

"Because one complaint I've heard from other scientists in other countries is: `Hey, the CDC in the U.S. doesn't release all their data. So why should we?' And that's a very legitimate complaint." (Helen Branswell, Canadian Press in The Star)
Thus Salzburg adds his voice to Dr. Ilaria Capua's and Swedish scientist Bernt Klingeborn. Fifteen labs are now depositing sequences in a password protected database at Los Alamos National Laboratories. Capua was offered a chance to become the 16th and declined. Correctly. We are past the time this kind of valuable information is shared among a small clique. In other subject areas and other times, maybe, although even there I have misgivings. We are in a new century and we need new norms. But we can settle those other things later. Right now the subject is open access to all the sequences anyone has of avian influenza virus.

Here are some reasons, also touched on in Branswell's article. Failure to share interferes with the ability of those outside the Gang of Fifteen to adjust their diagnostic tests and experiment with new vaccine technology. It gives countries like China a built-in (and legitimate) excuse not to share their sequences. It prevents independent scientists from doing state-of-the-art bioinformatics work. It sets a very bad precedent.

Journal editors should require proper acknowledgment of the source of all sequences used in manuscripts submitted to them, with threat of public censure for failure to credit the sources. But scientists do not own the viruses isolated from unfortunate victims of avian influenza, nor is it only their labor that revealed them. Countless others are involved in identifying, collecting, transmitting and analyzing them. The scientists with their names on the papers are the ones whose mailbox is at the end of the chain. They have little moral claim for ownership of any kind (except possession) and none for withholding these sequences from the world scientific community at a time of imminent crisis.

Most of the offenders here are among the most important and dedicated scientists to work on avian influenza. They deserve the high regard in which they are held. But they have spent almost all their professional careers doing academic science in a completely different environment. Today we have almost instant accessibility through the internet and public databases like GenBank. We also have a looming pandemic catastrophe.

It's time for these venerable and worthy old dogs to learn new tricks.