Monday, August 07, 2006

With Indonesia's say so, WHO to share bird flu data with scientific community

With Indonesia's say so, WHO to share bird flu data with scientific community
17:26:18 EDT Aug 4, 2006
HELEN BRANSWELL



Canadian Press: HED IS 77 CHARACTERS
(CP) - The World Health Organization on Friday welcomed the announcement that the Indonesian government had agreed to share with the global scientific community the genetic blueprints of the H5N1 avian flu viruses retrieved from human cases in that country.

A WHO official said the Geneva-based organization has instructed the WHO reference laboratories that sequenced the viruses for Indonesia to deposit their blueprints into Genbank, a databank which places no restrictions on who can study the genetic information it contains.

"What we will do is ensure that the labs - i.e. CDC and Hong Kong - that would have specimens from Indonesia are aware of the announcement from Indonesia . . . that there is permission," said Dr. Paul Gully, a former top official of the Public Health Agency of Canada who was seconded to the WHO's global influenza program earlier this year.

"It's not a very difficult process for the labs to actually upload that information. So I think we're just waiting to hear from them that that's actually happened."

Sequencing of viral isolates from Indonesia's human H5N1 cases has been done by a laboratory at the University of Hong Kong run by leading influenza authority Dr. Malik Peiris and by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.

Indonesia only began recording human cases of H5N1 in early July of last year. But in the intervening 13 months, its problem with the devastating virus has become acute. At least 54 people in Indonesia have been infected and 42 of those people have died. Only Vietnam - with 93 infections and 42 deaths - has suffered a similar human toll.

Like authorities in several other countries, Indonesian officials have been reluctant to share their viruses with outside scientists eager to use them to try to track the evolution of the H5N1 virus and crack the mysteries of its remarkable virulence.

The journal Nature recently reported that the country has exported few, if any, virus samples retrieved from domestic poultry over the past year.

"I've learned that scientists across the world have complained that they could not access the data and made statements as if we had hidden it," Indonesian Health Minister Siti Fadilah Supari said Thursday in a news conference at which she announced the decision to share the sequence data from the human cases.

"For the sake of basic human interests, the Indonesian government declares that genomic data on bird flu viruses can be accessed by anyone."

The decision will increase dramatically the amount of sequence data on human H5N1 cases in the public domain. Many of the genetic blueprints of H5N1 cases are held in a password-protected database only available to scientists from the WHO and the laboratories which sequence viruses for it - a situation that has been harshly criticized.

Ownership of a virus rests with the country in which is was isolated. And only that country can agree to allow a viral isolate to be shared. But critics of the system suggest the reluctance to share extends beyond individual countries to some of the labs in the WHO network.

Steven Salzberg, director of the Center for Bioinformatics at the University of Maryland, is among the system's critics. And on Friday, he applauded Indonesia's decision not just to share, but to share openly.

"I think this is very good news and I'm very pleased that the Indonesian health minister has decided that it's important to share the samples and these data with the rest of the community," he said.

"I think it will help us to understand better how the flu is mutating and spreading in the population."

According to the Jakarta Post, the Indonesian health minister said the decision to put the genetic sequence information into an open-access database was based on a recommendation from the medical committee of the Indonesian Academy of Sciences, a forum of experts that advises the government.

The newspaper quoted a member of the academy, Professor Sangkot Marzuki, as saying the committee felt emerging diseases like H5N1 should be addressed promptly, by as many experts as possible. Marzuki said in making its recommendation, the academy weighed potential economic benefits to Indonesia of restricting access to the information, including possible uses for vaccine and drug manufacture as well as potential royalties from intellectual property rights.


© The Canadian Press, 2006

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