March 21, 2006 > WHO says bird flu database should be public, but countries and scientists have concerns
WHO says bird flu database should be public, but countries and scientists have concerns
by BRADLEY S. KLAPPER, Associated Press Writer
GENEVA (AP), March 17 _ The U.N. health agency, under criticism for keeping its database on bird flu research out of public view, said some countries and scientists that have contributed their samples and research have yet to agree to share the information.
The password-protected database, details of which were first reported on earlier this month in the journal Science and The Wall Street Journal, was created in 2003 at the request of southeast Asian countries first hit by the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu, said Dick Thompson, spokesman for infectious diseases at the World Health Organization.
WHO has been urging countries and researchers to allow genetic sequences of the virus stored in the database to be made available publicly, but countries and scientists have so far resisted, Thompson said. He did not name the countries opposed to releasing the information or elaborate on their concerns.
"These are not our viruses and this isn't our information," Thompson told The Associated Press.
Developing countries like China and Vietnam have been traditionally frustrated with data sharing, noting that information from Asian viruses is often incorporated into vaccine research in Western countries without reimbursement or public acknowledgment. Those same developing countries often later cannot afford the finished vaccines.
The first cases of the H5N1 strain were reported in dead birds in Afghanistan and Denmark, and in Israel, officials said Friday there was a high chance that the illness caused the death of about 11,000 turkeys in the country's south. Four people in Israel with flu symptoms who came in contact with sick birds have been put in hospital isolation, and at least three farming communities have been placed under quarantine.
The H5N1 virus remains primarily a bird disease, but it has infected at least 177 people and killed 98 in the last three years. So far it has been hard for humans to catch. Virtually all patients had been in close contact with poultry. Experts fear, however, that the virus could mutate into a form that passes easily from person to person, potentially resulting in millions of deaths worldwide.
WHO is trying to raise international awareness of bird flu and has strongly urged countries to share samples of potential bird flu specimens with international health authorities, but recently the global health body's own transparency has come under scrutiny.
Ilaria Capua, an Italian veterinarian and bird flu expert, bypassed the database after a laboratory in Padua, Italy, identified H5N1 in samples from Nigeria last month, opting instead to log the information from there and from wild swans in Italy in GenBank, a non-restricted database of the U.S. National Institutes of Health.
"I did not want to put the sequence in a database with restricted access," she told The AP in Italy. "If this is truly the most serious public health threat in the last 100 years, I believe there is no time to waste."
The database contains some 2,300 genetic sequences of the H5N1 virus, about a third of the global total held by laboratories and research institutes, Thompson said. WHO has no estimates for how many people have access, but it is available to countries which have donated sequences and where the health body's collaborating centers are located. Scientists contributing sequences are also privy to the online bank.
Thompson said he sympathized with Capua's motives, but said criticism of WHO has been misplaced. The health agency, he explained, agreed to the privacy of the online database demanded by countries so that samples could be obtained as quickly as possible and more research could be undertaken to halt H5N1's spread.
"The point was initially to allow us to have access to these samples," Thompson said. "It's not like WHO is trying to prevent scientists everywhere from getting this information."
Associated Press correspondent Ariel David in Rome contributed to this report.