Thursday, June 01, 2006

Another thought on the sequences

Andrew Jeremijenko, the physician formerly in the influenza surveillance branch of NAMRU2 in Jakarta, has raised an interesting question about release of the sequences. The isolates come from patients and are sequenced elsewhere, often CDC or another WHO reference lab. One piece of information of interest to the treating doctors is whether the isolated strains have the genetic markers for adamantane-class and/or Tamiflu resistance. The adamantanes (amantidine, rimantadine) are older antivirals that are relatively inexpensive but little used in Indonesia, according to Jeremijenko. If the H5N1 strains there are sensitive to the adamantanes as some are elsewhere (although independent information suggests the ones in the Medan cluster were resistant), then this is important information for the treating physicians. There is an absolute moral obligation of the sequencing labs to provide the sequence information for use by treating physicians.

I don't know what, if anything, the Indonesian doctors have been told about the efficacy of amantadine. Jeremijenko suggests they have been told nothing. But this is just another case for releasing the sequences -- an urgent one. At the moment, post docs and young faculty (and their mentors) are aware that if they are sequencing H5N1 today they run the risk of having their work used by others who mine GenBank sequences for their own purposes. That's going to be a risk they must run if they want to work in this area. Meanwhile the profession should think of mechanisms to protect the sources of the sequences. GenBank might consider devising a policy requiring acknowledgment and credit (possibly co-authorship) for those using deposited sequence information so the careers of those providing the information will not be harmed.

But first things first. Scientists should not be the roadblock for H5N1 sequence release, despite the risk their work will be scooped by others. That's a hard case to make to someone who is trying to establish themselves in a competitive field. It should be one of the costs of entry, however. There are a lot of other scientific areas to work in, if that's unacceptable.

The sequence problem needs to be solved, and solved quickly. Time to cut the Gordian knot and for scientists to deposit them in GenBank on their own initiative and because its the right thing to do, career or no career. Maybe that will also shake some of the state actors loose.