Indonesia, FAO, OIE pledge to publish H5N1 data

Aug 3, 2006 (CIDRAP News) – In an apparent policy shift, Indonesia promised today to freely share genetic data on H5N1 avian influenza viruses, according to a Bloomberg news report.

That announcement comes 2 days after the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) pledged to "systematically" publish avian flu virus sequences and urged others to follow suit.

The two announcements raise the prospect of better tracking of mutations in the virus, which should help in the development of vaccines to use in case the H5N1 virus evolves into a strain capable of causing a human pandemic.

Indonesia's health minister, Siti Fadilah Supari, said the country will deposit avian flu virus data in GenBank, a public database of genetic sequences, according to today's Bloomberg report. She said data from the recent family case cluster in Sumatra involving person-to-person transmission would be included.

The journal Nature reported Jul 28 that until very recently, Indonesia had shared few, if any, H5N1 virus samples from birds over the past year. Peter Roeder, an FAO official in Indonesia, was quoted as saying the FAO had received no sequence data from poultry viruses from August 2005 until very recently, when 91 samples arrived at an OIE facility in Geelong, Australia.

The Indonesian announcement was welcomed by the World Health Organization (WHO), according to Bloomberg. "We are very pleased with the Indonesian government decision. This will be important for the international response to avian influenza," George Petersen, WHO representative in the country, told Bloomberg.

The OIE and FAO announced Aug 1 that their joint network of expertise on avian influenza, called OFFLU, would "systematically make avian influenza virus sequences accessible to the entire scientific community," according to an FAO news release. The groups promised to send virus samples to the US National Institutes of Health for sequencing and would deposit the sequence data in GenBank.

"With this gesture OFFLU reiterates its call to the world's scientists, international organizations and countries for a global sharing of virus strains and sequences," the FAO said.

Virus strains are often considered intellectual property, and some experts believe that sharing them can possibly hamper research progress and scientific publication, the FAO statement said.

OFFLU was launched in April 2005 with the aim of sharing avian flu data and virus samples internally and with the wider scientific community, the FAO said. In February of this year, OFFLU launched a campaign for openness when Dr. Ilaria Capua of Italy, chair of the network's Scientific Committee, published sequence data on H5N1 strains from Nigeria and Italy and urged 50 colleagues around the world to share their data.

In March, the OFFLU Scientific Committee decided "to put new emphasis on the need for further collection, characterization, and exchange" of avian flu viruses and for expansion of sequence data, the FAO reported. At about the same time, Capua and four OFFLU colleagues wrote a letter to the journal Science promising to make H5N1 samples available for sequencing.

See also:

Aug 1 FAO news release about H5N1 data sharing
http://www.fao.org/newsroom/en/news/2006/1000374/index.html

Aug 1 OIE news release
http://web.oie.int/eng/press/en_060801.htm

OFFLU site
http://www.offlu.net/

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