Scientists launch effort to share avian flu data

Aug 25, 2006 (CIDRAP News) – Leading medical researchers yesterday announced the formation of a consortium to unlock genetic and other data on avian influenza in the hope of improving the understanding of how viruses such as H5N1 spread and evolve.

A letter published online yesterday by Nature, signed by 70 scientists and health officials, announced the launch of the Global Initiative on Sharing Avian Influenza Data (GISAID). Authors of the letter include Dr. Nancy Cox, head of the Influenza Division at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and Ilaria Capua, an Italian veterinary virologist who is a leading advocate of greater sharing of H5N1 genetic data.

"The Initiative is coming together to work around restrictions which have previously prevented influenza information sharing, with the hope that more shared information will help researchers understand how viruses spread, evolve, and potentially become pandemic," states a news release on the GISAID Web site.

The consortium "is open to all scientists, provided they agree to share their own data, credit the use of others' data, analyze findings jointly, and publish results collaboratively," the release says. The Nature letter says that data will be published in three public databases "as soon as possible after analysis and validation, with a maximum delay of six months."

Details are still being worked out, but the participants have agreed to deposit genetic data into secure sections—not yet set up—of existing public databases, according to a Nature news article published yesterday. The data will initially be accessible only to the consortium researchers, but will be opened to public access within 6 months.

The consortium said it will use the three databases participating in the International Nucleotide Sequence Database Collaboration: EBML in the United Kingdom, DDBJ in Japan, and GenBank in the United States.

Yesterday's announcement is the second major development this week affecting the availability of genetic data on flu viruses. Two days ago the CDC said it was depositing the blueprints for 650 human flu virus genes in GenBank, a public database, and would release data on several hundred more flu viruses each year henceforth. The data are from viruses collected in the United States.

Scientists have complained in recent months about the withholding of genetic sequences of flu viruses, especially H5N1. The World Health Organization (WHO) obtains such data as its affiliated laboratories analyze viruses, but the WHO releases the data only with permission from the country of origin. Some countries battling H5N1 have refused to allow release of the information. Indonesia, an H5N1 hot spot, had long refused to authorize release of data on its viruses, but earlier this month the government changed its stance.

In a telephone interview, Cox said the goal of GISAID is to share clinical and epidemiologic information as well as genetic data on avian flu cases.

"The aim is that eventually the data will be linked together so there will be not only the sequence data but also the clinical and epidemiologic data," she told CIDRAP News. "The sequences become much more meaningful with other data linked to them."

Clinical information would include such things as the patient's age, whether he or she survived the illness, how long the illness lasted, and what part of the body a specimen was taken from, she said.

"All of this information is very useful when you're trying to understand the evolution of the virus," Cox said, adding that data would be stripped of personal identifiers.

Public genetic databases aren't necessarily set up to accommodate additional information beyond the bare sequence data, and some work will be required to remedy that, Cox said. For example, a database should have fields for such information as whether the virus came directly from a clinical specimen or from an isolate obtained by amplifying the original specimen, she explained.

"All of these details are potentially very important because they can have an impact on the sequence itself," she said.

GISAID will include experts in animal and human virology, epidemiology, bioinformatics, and intellectual property issues, according to the Nature letter.

A concern of developing countries battling the H5N1 virus is that they won't benefit from releasing data derived from samples they collect, because any resulting drugs or vaccines will be too expensive. Because of this, Cox said, "There really is going to be a lot of effort put into the intellectual property rights issue to assure proper acknowledgment of the origin of the sequences and recognize the scientists and the public health workers in the country of origin of the virus."

A group within the consortium will focus on intellectual property issues, Cox said. They will work to credit the scientists who are on the front lines in affected countries and also "to determine if there are ways the consortium could help facilitate benefits for those countries that are hardest hit by avian flu."

The equity issue has been discussed a lot, she added. "We don’t have the solutions yet, but it's an area that needs to be tackled."

Cox said scientists working for pharmaceutical companies could participate in the consortium. "Pharmaceutical manufacturers would be able to look at the data, and, for example, if they 're trying to design new antiviral drugs for H5N1 or other flu viruses, they'd be able to use the data to do that," she said.

The director of GISAID is Peter Bogner, chief executive of the Bogner Organization, Santa Monica, Calif. He is an author of the Nature letter, along with Cox; Capua, who chairs the scientific committee of the joint avian flu expert panel of the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization; and David J. Lipman, director of the US National Center for Biotechnology Information.

According to the Nature news article, Capua started something of a rebellion against the hoarding of avian flu virus data last March, when she put her own H5N1 sequence data into GenBank instead of in the protected database used by WHO-linked labs, and challenged others to do the same.

Capua then collaborated with Bogner, who talked with many scientists and policymakers about the issue, according to the article. Subsequently, the OIE-FAO avian flu expert panel (OFFLU) endorsed the consortium idea.

The 70 signers of the Nature letter include researchers and health officials from countries around the world, including those hard-hit by H5N1 avian flu, such as Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, China, Cambodia, Egypt, and Turkey, as well as countries not yet affected.

Cox said the consortium is "really at a very formative stage right now. There's a lot of groundswell of support for it. There's a lot of enthusiasm, but it's just the beginning."

See also:

GISAID letter to Nature

Nature news story

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