August 24, 2006

Scientists propose sharing genetic data on bird flu

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) - Leading scientists called on Thursday
for the establishment of a global consortium to share genetic
data from bird flu cases, deemed vital for tracking mutations
and developing a vaccine against a human pandemic.

In a letter to science journal Nature, 70 scientists and
health officials said the current level of collecting and
sharing of data on the H5N1 avian influenza virus was
"inadequate ... given the magnitude of the threat."

In its press release, Nature ( ) went
further accusing some scientists and organizations of
"hoarding" sequence data, often for years, so as to be the
first to publish it in academic journals.

"We propose to expand and complement existing efforts with
the creation of a global consortium -- the Global Initiative on
Sharing Avian Influenza Data (GISAID) -- that would foster
international sharing of avian influenza isolates and data,"
wrote the scientists, who include six Nobel laureates.

Researchers taking part in the consortium would agree to
share their sequence data, analyze the findings jointly and
publish the results collaboratively, they said.

Bird flu remains essentially an animal disease, but experts
fear that the H5N1 virus could mutate into a form that could
pass easily among humans and kill millions.

The virus has killed 141 people since 2003 among 241 known
cases in 10 countries, mostly in Asia, the World Health
Organization (WHO) says.


Currently countries send samples taken from suspect cases
for confirmation to international laboratories recognized by
the WHO, but they must give the green light for the United
Nations health agency to release the genetic data.

China, Thailand and Vietnam, three of the most hard hit by
the virus, were among those not sharing genetic information,
although Indonesia has recently agreed to do so, the New York
Times reported on Thursday.

The WHO, which declined to confirm or deny the newspaper
report, on Thursday renewed its appeal for putting all genetic
sequencing information in the public domain in a statement
issued on its website ( ) to coincide with the

"WHO believes that timely sharing of H5 virus sequence
information is a critical step for improving the international
response to the avian and pandemic influenza threat," it said.

Genetic data is important for vaccine development,
preparing reagents used for diagnostic purposes and monitoring
drug-resistant strains, according to the Geneva-based agency.

Under the proposed consortium, data would be deposited in
three public databases in Japan, Europe and the United States.

Scientists must have full access to comprehensive genetic
sequencing, as well as clinical and epidemiological data from
both animal and human virus isolates, the scientists said.

WHO spokesman Dick Thompson said the agency "absolutely
supported" the idea. "Rapid sharing of sequence information is
important but it has to be linked with epidemiological and
clinical data to be complete," he added.