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Flu Experts Advocate Bird-Flu Database
posted by admin on 25/08/06

A system would help countries around the world avert a health catastrophe.

LONDON -- Top flu experts called on Thursday for the creation of a new database to share bird-flu data, a system they say would promote research on the virus and help countries around the world avert a health catastrophe.

The letter published in Nature magazine was signed by several dozen scientists, a virtual Who's Who of the bird-flu world, including six Nobel laureates. It said scientists participating in the Global Initiative on Sharing Avian Influenza Data would agree to publish results collaboratively.

However, some international health officials expressed skepticism.

"We certainly support the spirit of this letter, but we are unclear what this initiative will actually add to the monitoring of avian influenza," said Dick Thompson, a spokesman for the World Health Organization.

The idea of an international database of shared bird-flu information may be reassuring, but it is uncertain how much it would change H5N1 monitoring, since the world's top flu experts already have wide access to WHO's bird-flu data.

But in recent months, WHO has been under heavy criticism for its "secret database" -- in which only a select number of scientists have access to bird-flu sequences. As a United Nations agency, WHO doesn't have the authority to release sequences without the explicit permission of the governments from which flu data originate.

Several bird flu-affected countries have been criticized for jeopardizing the global fight against the H5N1 virus by refusing to share their bird-flu data. In a turnaround this month, Indonesia's health minister announced that the country would share its information on bird-flu viruses with the international community.

Since the scientific community is largely driven by a race to publish, countries and laboratories have traditionally been reluctant to share information before announcing their research in reputable magazines or journals.

"This initiative is important as it's a further commitment on the part of scientists world-wide to share data, but it doesn't solve all the problems," said Angus Nicoll, director of Influenza Coordination at the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

For poorer countries, sharing data does not necessarily translate into tangible benefits. "If the pandemic starts in a developing country and they share the virus, how will they reap the benefits of that?" asked Dr. Nicoll. "That hasn't yet been addressed."

Copyright © 2006 Associated Press

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