HF: The “Flu Network” is one of the backbones for international cooperation to fight the novel coronavirus. How does it work?
AK: The influenza virus constantly mutates and circulates around the world. It causes waves of seasonal flu each year — and sometimes also extraordinarily deadly flu pandemics, like the 1919 pandemic that probably killed 50 (million) to 100 million people around the world. To respond, we need a public health system to gather virus samples and data all over the world, to analyze them, and to help us make and select the virus strains that go into vaccines.
The Flu Network (officially, the “GISRS” network) does all of this. It’s a global scientific network that spans more that 100 countries, largely funded by national governments and coordinated by the World Health Organization. If you’ve had the flu vaccine, the network in a way is a part of you: It probably both collected the viruses needed to make that vaccine, and decided which strains would go in the vaccine you took.
HF: How does political scientist Elinor Ostrom’s work help explain how networks such as the Flu Network can encourage open scientific cooperation?
AK: Ostrom was fascinated by how people organize themselves. She mapped how people around the world manage resources like fisheries and grazing land through systems other than private property and markets. She showed that — contrary to accounts of the “tragedy of the commons” — communities can collaborate to manage resources well, if they can do a few things. For example, they need to be able to define groups, create and enforce rules about sharing, revise rules when tensions emerge, and regulate relationships with the outside.
The Flu Network is a voluntary initiative, and it works because it is able to do these things. More broadly, it also relies on the model of “open” or public science. Public scientists are funded by government, share their research results and use peer review to evaluate whose work is best and most valuable. It creates a feedback loop that validates good work and guides allocation that works really differently than private or market science, which is based on exclusion and price. The Flu Network works as an open network because it follows the norms of open science, and creates and enforces rules as Ostrom suggests.
As I’ve written, it is a fascinating example of how transnational collaboration can undertake complex scientific and technical work, without private market incentives or discipline, but rather through a system of sharing, norms and government investment. In fact, that’s the only way that global public goods like this can be created. Market actors won’t invest where risks are large and time horizons are uncertain. And basic public health surveillance isn’t a moneymaking endeavor. We often fail to appreciate how important government is to scientific and technical infrastructure, and this is an example of its critical role.
HF: There is a lot of distrust among governments about developing a coronavirus vaccine. How did similar distrust in 2005 to 2007 over vaccines for the H1N1 flu affect information sharing between governments?
AK: It came to a screeching halt, and the whole network hung in the balance. There was a dangerous new avian flu strain emerging with a hot spot in Indonesia, and at first scientists there shared data and viruses with the network. Then the government realized that this was all being given to industry, which was taking out patents related to these strains and making vaccines that only rich countries could access. They halted data and virus sharing, demanding sharing of benefits, and a rule against patents on network work, as well as credit for their scientists.
It led to a major new international agreement: Now, credit is required, patents on network material are limited, and companies taking from the network have to contribute some of the costs of running the network, as well as around 20 percent of any vaccines or treatments to the WHO in a pandemic. That agreement only applies to influenza, but it offers an example of how covid-19 vaccine development might work.
The response will be faster if there is data sharing and patent claims don’t stand in the way. Guarantees of access around the world that reflected international human rights norms would help all of this.
HF: What consequences have those old controversies had for the rules and organizational structures that govern information sharing in the current pandemic?
AK: Around 85 percent of the national public health labs currently testing for covid-19 are closely associated with the Flu Network — the international covid-19 surveillance network was basically built from the Flu Network. And the platform on which Chinese scientists first shared the covid-19 virus sequences was GISAID — the “Global Initiative on Sharing All Influenza Data.” That site was created to share influenza virus data, to respond to problems that emerged during that time, including closed networks of data sharing and lack of appropriate credit for developing country scientists. GISAID requires credit, and requires open data sharing under a binding license.
The influenza experience created the architecture of the initial response, and scientists who lived through flu and outbreaks like SARS also knew how important rapid data sharing was. That’s what allowed tests and research to begin so quickly. (Scale up in testing has been a huge problem in the United States, but the data has been there since the beginning, which is why the WHO has had a test for so long.)
These experiences and institutions have helped scientists work together and share data. However, governments show few signs of collaborating, either to speed up research or to decide on terms of fair worldwide allocation of vaccines. That might sound good if you think your country will develop a vaccine first — but no one knows if or where that will happen.