Friday, March 17, 2006

Unethical science by dedicated scientists

This week one of the world's most prestigious scientific journals, Nature, published an Editorial of great importance. It was Nature you may recall, that also sounded a high profile warning that avian influenza needed attention. They have now done another service.

In a damning indictment of flu sequence data hoarders, the journal called for immediate access to data by the world scientific community:
When samples are sequenced, the results are usually either restricted by governments or kept private to an old-boy network of researchers linked to the WHO, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the FAO. This is a far cry from the Human Genome Project, in which all the data were placed in the public domain 24 hours after sequencing. Many scientists and organizations are also hoarding sequence data, often for years, so they can be the first to publish in academic journals. With the world facing a possible pandemic, such practices are wholly unacceptable. Nature and its associated journals are not alone in supporting the rapid prior exposure of data when there are acute public-health necessities. (Nature Editorial)
The journal joined others in praise for Italy's Dr. Ilaria Capua who last week (here and here) called for her colleagues to release sequence data they have held on to for years or continue to share only among a small clique of in-group researchers (if they share at all). As Nature notes, there are the usual kinds of trade and economic considerations that lead national authorities to be coy or worse about disease outbreaks on their territory, and that is a difficult political problem. But the question of scientists holding on to sequencing data for avian flu is not so hard to solve. Our community should join with Dr. Capua and others to say this is unethical behavior in the current circumstances.

More details are contained in a fine article in The Wall Street Journal by Nick Zamiska, among the select ranks of excellent flu reporters.
Even as the World Health Organization presses China and other countries to share bird-flu data for the public good, the WHO itself runs a database limited to a select group of scientists and containing a massive trove of data -- some 2,300 genetic sequences of the virus, around a third of the world's known sequences, according to two people familiar with the database's contents. Any one of those sequences could hold clues to an effective human vaccine or drugs that could kill the virus, or help scientists determine how great a threat it poses.


The WHO, normally an outspoken advocate of transparency, says it limits access to the database so scientists and governments will share bird-flu data they might otherwise hoard to further their own research. Scientists with access to the system can collaborate with each other but must agree not to publish results without prior consultation. Michael Perdue, a leading scientist at the WHO in Geneva, says the system has proven to be a useful compromise, because some sharing is better than none. (Nick Zamiska in the Wall Street Journal)
WHO's collusion with this system is taking well-justified flak and there are those within the agency who deplore it privately. There is disagreement as to where the problem lies. WHO and CDC blame the countries of origin of the viruses who won't give permission for public release by the researchers or laboratories. Indonesia and China are two countries mentioned as being sensitive about "their" sequences being publicly released before they can make use of them, for whatever purposes -- credit, commercial or scientific. Dr. Capua believes blaming the countries is a shell game for researcher reluctance to let go of their data assets.

The scientists involved are among the most celebrated flu researchers in the world and include those from CDC, St. Jude's, the UK's Weybridge Laboratory and Chinese scientists, to name a few. These are good, dedicated people. I know some of them personally and admire and like them. But they are now acting unethically and should be called on it.

We are facing a potential global catastrophe. Early warning of a genetic change or a strain that could be used for a vaccine are a common global good. Here is my suggestion. Every competent sequencing laboratory should immediately give notice to anyone submitting isolates that the sequence will be released simultaneously to a public database (GenBank) as a condition of their collaboration. Editors should henceforth decline to publish papers based on sequences not public at the time of submission or from laboratories who do not routinely release their sequences publicly on a timely basis. We should make openness a norm whose violation is considered on the same level as other serious ethical requirements whose transgression disqualifies the scientists from the benefits of scientific publication.

Science has little to lose from this as sequences currently being kept secret are lost anyway. Science has a great deal to gain in terms of a head start on crucially important scientific information now being sequestered for private gain, reputation or credit by scientists who should behave better.

Finally, we note that this is behavior not limited to scientists. The New York Times carried a story in its Business Section this week about the level of preparedness of businesses around the world. The Asian enterprises, because of their experience with SARS, are far ahead of their counterparts elsewhere, many of whom have recognized the problem but done little or nothing to address it. What was interesting was that some forward looking businesses have openly shared their plans, while others claim to have made detailed preparations declined to share them on the basis that they are proprietary.
"As other global players, we have a global business continuity program in place that covers a wide range of contingencies, including flu pandemic," said Klaus Thoma, a spokesman for Deutsche Bank in Frankfurt, who said that details were privileged company information.

Likewise, FedEx, the express delivery service, has been "monitoring the situation for some time," said Sandra Munoz, a spokeswoman for the company in New York, noting that FedEx had "the flexibility within our system to make the necessary adjustments to minimize any impact to our customers, regardless of the situation." Without going into details, FedEx said that it had developed contingency plans "down to every district or market here in Asia Pacific," said John Allison, a company representative in Hong Kong. (New York Times)
I see this as little different in kind from the genetic sequence problem. Neither Deutsche Bank nor Fed Ex has anything to be proud of. On the contrary, they are withholding important thinking that could make it easier for other enterprises to cope with a pandemic. These include businesses upon which their customers depend, not just FedEx competitors.

There comes a time when "business as usual" is unacceptable, whether it is for scientists, national health or agriculture agencies or businesses like Deutsche Bank or Fed Ex.

That time has arrived.