Bird Flu Fears Ignite Debate on Scientists' Sharing of Data

By David Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 25, 2006

As fears of an influenza pandemic grow, a struggle has emerged between experts who believe the latest genetic data on the H5N1 bird flu virus should be made public immediately and others who fear that such a policy would alienate the countries collecting virus samples and the scientists analyzing them.

The issue may come to a head this week at the World Health Assembly in Geneva, the governing body of the World Health Organization. Health ministers from more than 190 countries will consider a resolution that would require them to provide flu data and virus samples to the scientific community "in a timely manner."

If adopted, that probably would end the current system whereby flu researchers decide when and how quickly crucial genetic data on the virus are made available to other scientists.

WHO supports the change. But before it is adopted, developing countries where the H5N1 virus is circulating would need to be assured that their scientists would share credit for discoveries and that their citizens would have access to its fruits -- particularly a vaccine.

Without guarantees, scientists and clinicians may be unwilling to hand over virus samples or collect them in the first place, Margaret Chan, WHO's director of pandemic influenza planning, said recently.

Critics of the current system say the possibility of global catastrophe trumps any concern about hurt feelings or career advancement.

"Science just moves more rapidly when you share the data openly," said Steven L. Salzberg, a computer scientist at the University of Maryland and a leader of the Influenza Genome Sequencing Project at the National Institutes of Health.

He said the chief fear is that one researcher will expropriate another's hard-earned data before the first can produce a scientific paper.

"It will happen, I can't deny it," he said. "But the problem is that when you take that attitude with a public health matter, then you're essentially putting your scientific goals ahead of matters of the public."

But the resistance to sharing data may wane as the specter of a pandemic grows.

This week, an international team of epidemiologists is investigating an H5N1 outbreak that has killed six members of a family in a remote Indonesian village.

"The government has been extremely cooperative . . . unlike some previous examples where we have had a little more difficulty in getting specimens to the proper laboratories," Julie L. Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said yesterday from Geneva, where she is attending the World Health Assembly. A laboratory in Jakarta has been doing "gold-standard diagnostics" in the outbreak, she said.

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