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Bird flu data liberated

August 24, 2006 By Helen Pearson This article courtesy of Nature News.

Agreement reached, in principle, to release avian influenza data.

Researchers studying avian influenza say they have agreed to share data that were previously being kept behind closed doors a move they hope will speed insights into the virus that threatens to spark a human pandemic.

Some countries and organizations have come under fire for hoarding genetic information about the virus. The data have been kept under wraps partly because of concerns that other groups might use them and publish scientific findings without giving due credit to researchers involved.

Now many leading avian influenza scientists have tentatively agreed to share data as part of an effort called the Global Initiative on Sharing Avian Influenza Data (GISAID). A letter outlining the agreement is published online today in Nature1, signed by 70 scientists and health officials, including six Nobel laureates.

The precise details of the agreement are still being thrashed out. But, in essence, the participants have agreed to place genetic sequences into secure sections (which have not yet been set up) of existing online databases, as soon as possible after producing and analysing them. The group proposes using the International Nucleotide Sequence Database Collaboration, a network of three major public databases, for the collection.

The data will, at first, only be accessible to scientists who have signed up to the agreement, but will become open to the public after 6 months at the most.

Scientists who sign up make a promise to share their sequences. They must also agree to collaborate with, and appropriately credit, all other researchers in publications and intellectual-property agreements.

Easy comparison

By storing all the sequences in a designated place and allowing more open access, the hope is that researchers will be able to carry out comparisons quickly of one new strain against many others from both animals and humans. This type of analysis can reveal whether a virus is acquiring mutations as it spreads between bird flocks, or should the virus start spreading between people whether it is becoming resistant to drugs.

"It's a very positive development," says Peter Palese, who studies influenza viruses at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. There are scientist signatories from many of the countries worst hit by bird flu, including China, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam. And the Indonesian government has thrown its support behind free access to data. But Palese questions whether the agreement will work without full involvement from all these countries' governments. "You need these people on board," he says.

Global network

Until now, research organizations have tended to keep their own repositories of avian influenza sequences. Access to many sequences was restricted to a global network of 15 flu laboratories associated with the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Veterinary virologist Ilaria Capua at the Vialle dell'Universita in Padova, Italy, started something of a backlash against this system in March this year. Instead of placing her flu sequence data in the WHO-linked, password-protected database, she chose to enter it into the publicly available GenBank, and called on colleagues to do the same. "When you're facing a pandemic, you have to get your priorities straight," she says.

The idea of favouring freely available databases then started to gain ground. Capua joined forces with well-connected Peter Bogner, who runs an advisory group called The Bogner Organisation in Santa Monica, California. Bogner travelled around the world talking to scientists and policymakers about the issue. The avian flu expert group formed by the World Organisation for Animal Health and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, called OFFLU, subsequently endorsed the idea.

Open access

Bogner's and Capua's efforts have resulted in this GISAID agreement, which they put together with Nancy Cox, head of the influenza division at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia, and David Lipman, director of the National Center for Biotechnology Information in Bethesda, Maryland.

Some organizations have already started to share their flu sequences more openly. Earlier this month, the Indonesian government announced that it would share its genomic data with scientists worldwide. The CDC revealed earlier this week that it had released the genetic sequence of 650 flu virus genes into an open database.

Capua says that she is "really happy with the result". Perhaps, she says, the same framework could be used to distribute data for other emerging infectious diseases in which information must be shared quickly. "If a new SARS knocks on our door, we have a system in place," she says.

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  1. Bogner P., et al. Nature, published online doi:10.1038/nature442981a (2006).


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