Indonesia hands over bird flu data to new database

Thursday, May 15, 2008

By ROBIN McDOWELL, Associated Press Writer


JAKARTA, Indonesia — 

Indonesia announced Thursday it would start sharing all information about its bird flu cases with a new global database to monitor whether the disease is mutating into a dangerous pandemic strain.

Experts said participation by Indonesia, the country hardest hit by avian influenza, will be a great help following its yearlong boycott of the World Health Organization's virus sharing system.

China, Russia and other nations that have withheld virus samples and genetic data from the international community are taking part in the new initiative as well, saying it offers transparency and, for the first time, basic protection of intellectual property rights.

With nearly half the 240 human deaths recorded worldwide, Indonesia is seen by many scientists as a potential hotspot for a pandemic. But its health minister, Siti Fadilah Supari, started withholding virus samples and data from the WHO in January 2007. She thought its virus sharing system was unfair to poor nations, fearing pharmaceutical companies would make vaccines her people could not afford.

Health experts said she was endangering the planet, because there was no way of knowing if her country's virus was mutating.

"We have always promoted the sharing of influenza data, all we ask for is that it be done in a fair, transparent and equitable manner," Supari said Thursday, vowing to share the DNA bird flu data for her country's latest human cases immediately.

"I think it's wonderful," said Peter Palese, who studies influenza at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, adding it will make it easier for researchers to see if the virus is mutating to a form that spreads more easily between people, with the potential to kill millions worldwide.

The free online site launched on Thursday, 18 months after strategic adviser Peter Bogner and 77 influential scientists and health experts wrote a letter to Nature magazine calling for bird flu information to be shared more quickly and openly _ resulting in the Global Initiative on Sharing Avian Influenza Data, or GISAID.

Until then, research organizations often kept their own repositories of DNA sequencing data. In the case of bird flu, WHO was keeping crucial information in a private database in Los Alamos, New Mexico, making it accessible to just 15 laboratories.

That revelation, made public by Italian veterinary researcher Ilaria Capua in early 2006, led some foreign governments and scientists to call for a boycott of WHO's 50-year-old virus sharing system.

"The reluctance by Indonesia, in particular, to share samples and genetic data was of particular concern," said Harold Varmus, a Nobel laureate and Nature letter signatory.

Late last year, the WHO acknowledged it needed to urgently address the international community's growing misgivings. But it maintains some genetic data should be kept behind closed doors. The global body is seeking $10 million for another database and tracking system.

Many countries are asking if that is necessary, especially following the launch of Thursday's online site, which was tailor-made by and for influenza scientists. They include members of WHO's four collaborating centers, who say full transparency will not hinder efforts to carry out their vaccine strain selection process.

"GISAID has a big head start already," noted Nirmal Ganguly, the former head of the Indian Council of Medical Research.

The new platform calls on users to reach an agreement with data providers before applying, for example, for patents needed for vaccines. In an effort to boost transparency, GISAID also has created an electronic tracking system that enables site users to see who has sent or received virus data _ from government laboratories to pharmaceutical companies.

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