posted by admin on 07/08/06
WHO Public Release Follows Growing Calls For Transparency
By NICHOLAS ZAMISKA
August 7, 2006
The World Health Organization said it will make the genetic codes of the bird-flu virus from Indonesia public after the country's health minister agreed to their release late last week, amid a chorus of calls from scientists for greater transparency.
Indonesian health officials have been sending the genetic codes -- known as sequences -- of the H5N1 viruses that infected people to a WHO-affiliated laboratory in Hong Kong, which would confirm the cases and analyze the viruses. But from there, the genetic blueprint of the virus is held in a password-protected database administered by the WHO and accessible only to a limited number of WHO labs around the world.
Scientists have been calling on the WHO and its network of laboratories to release the sequences so that more people can study them and try to determine how the virus is evolving, if at all, how to stop it from killing humans and how to ward off any mutation to a form that would be easily passed from person to person, which could spark a pandemic. The sequences will now be released to a publicly accessible database.
"We've informed the labs that they have Indonesia's permission to upload the sequences to the public databases," Dick Thompson, a spokesman for the WHO in Geneva, said yesterday. "We've requested that they do that."
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has some Indonesian viruses, has informed the WHO that it has made the sequences public after receiving the WHO's request, Mr. Thompson added. The WHO is still waiting to hear back from the Hong Kong lab.
The Indonesian sequences are of special interest because earlier this year, international health experts identified an unusually large cluster of human cases in which the virus may have passed among a small chain of people, a potential precursor to a pandemic. The virus has killed at least 42 people in Indonesia since last year -- nearly one-third of the 134 people who have died world-wide since it re-emerged in Asia in late 2003.
The WHO has so far declined to release the sequences, saying it was bound to keep information it received from countries confidential, in part because certain countries, such as Indonesia, hadn't agreed to a wider release.
On Thursday, Indonesian Health Minister Siti Fadilah Supari announced at a news conference that her government would allow the sequences to be shared, according to a report in the Jakarta Post. "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," she said at a news conference, according to the report. "For the sake of basic human interests, the Indonesian government declares that genomic data on bird-flu viruses can be accessed by anyone."
Nyoman Kandun, director-general of disease control and environmental health at the Indonesian Ministry of Health in Jakarta, confirmed that the health minister had decided to release the data.
When asked what prompted the decision, he said in a telephone interview yesterday, "Because there were requests from many people who said that we were hiding all the information -- that is why the minister of health decided to release all the information to put in the genome bank."
He added that the WHO, as well as foreign scientists, had been pressing the Indonesian government to release the sequences.
--Puspa Madani contributed to this article.
Write to Nicholas Zamiska at firstname.lastname@example.org