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Outsider in Scientific World Works to Speed Bird-Flu Race
posted by admin on 31/08/06

Bogner's Efforts Win Researchers' Pledge To Share Discoveries

August 31, 2006

HONG KONG -- While scientists around the globe have been racing to unravel the mysteries behind a deadly avian influenza virus that could potentially threaten the world's population, Peter Bogner was organizing a sailboat race in the Mediterranean. In the 1990s, he worked for Time Warner Inc. on several television ventures, and now is a member of the group that awards U.S. television's Emmys.

[Peter Bogner]

Last week, Mr. Bogner announced he was leading an effort to get bird-flu scientists to share important data that could help health officials defeat the disease. One academic journal, Science, summed up the reaction from the scientific community by running a photo of the 42-year-old Mr. Bogner with the caption: "Peter who?"

His effort centers around a thorny problem that often pits scientific ambition against the demands of public health, whether with bird flu or other diseases. Scientists around the world collect important samples and data that they don't always want to make public because sharing the information could jeopardize their chances of publishing papers and promoting their careers. Governments sometimes balk, too, for fear of losing access to the raw material for valuable vaccines.

In the case of the bird-flu virus, some of this information is kept by the World Health Organization in a private database, accessible only to a limited group of researchers. The WHO says countries would never have shared information with its elite network of scientists without that pledge.

Sharing the data more widely could unearth important clues to the virus's evolution and help scientists figure out how to fight the disease. This year, Ilaria Capua, an Italian veterinarian and researcher, called on scientists to boycott the WHO's database and make their bird-flu data public.

Mr. Bogner read an article about Dr. Capua and says it prompted him to take action. He says he sees himself as a layman with business savvy and thought an outsider's perspective could help solve this problem. "A fresh view from an outside view will always lend ideas," Mr. Bogner says. "You just have to understand you're never an expert in the field. You become the glue."

So far, he, along with several other top scientists, has managed to stitch together a network of the world's top flu scientists and has persuaded them in principle to share their data to speed research on the disease -- and to effectively sidestep the WHO's database as well as stop hoarding data for themselves. The effort culminated last week in the journal Nature's publication of a letter signed by 70 scientists -- including six Nobel laureates -- all of whom committed to sharing data more quickly and openly.

In an editorial published today, Nature describes the new initiative as "only a beginning," but says it is "encouraging that so many leading flu researchers have signed up to its principles."

The list is dominated by animal-health scientists, but key scientists at seven of the eight WHO reference laboratories signed on as well. Bruno Baron, a spokesman for the Institut Pasteur in Paris -- the only reference laboratory not on the list -- says that their signature was "only delayed for administrative reasons."

Collecting signatures, while a significant step, is largely a symbolic move that may or may not translate into more access to data. Chen Hualan, one of China's top influenza researchers, was among the 70 scientists who signed the letter. But China has yet to share any virus isolates taken from its birds, despite promising to make them available, according to the WHO. Dr. Chen didn't respond to a request for comment.

And some countries still haven't been brought into the fold. Nobody from Russia, for instance, signed the letter, and Angus Nicoll, influenza coordinator for the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, says Russian scientists haven't been sharing the viruses they collect from dead birds and may also be withholding sequence data. Russian officials say they share all their virus samples and data with foreigners.

Nonetheless, Mr. Bogner's campaign highlights how the WHO, the United Nations health agency, is often constrained from taking a tough stand against countries that don't cooperate, because its officials work for and are funded by its 192 member states.

Dr. Capua says that the initiative was never meant to cause conflict, but that the WHO's decision to maintain a database of information that isn't publicly accessible is no longer tenable. "This is not an attack on WHO," she says. "It's just that the system needs to change as the system is evolving."

Dick Thompson, a spokesman for the WHO in Geneva, says the agency "absolutely supports rapid sharing of H5N1 sequence data." The H5N1 avian-flu strain has concerned scientists because they fear it could mutate into a form that could spread more easily from human to human. He added that "perhaps this consortium of scientists and a publicist will be better able to accommodate the cultures and concerns of these countries. If so, we will all benefit. Right now we believe that we are doing the best work possible."

There has been some progress. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta said last week that it had placed the genetic blueprints of more than 650 seasonal flu viruses in a public database available to any researcher globally with Internet access, in a move to hasten research and encourage other nations to share viruses they have isolated.

Mr. Bogner became a self-appointed champion of scientific cooperation through a circuitous and unlikely route. He was born and raised in Germany, then later made his way to Los Angeles. There, he began editing television shows, which led to a career in media.

Over the years, he has dabbled in various projects around the world. One was an instructional skiing video he produced entitled "Peter Bogner's Skiing Techniques." He says he later did work for Bertelsmann AG and Viacom Entertainment Group, among others, and until recently was on the supervisory board of PrimaCom AG, a European broadband operator.

From his time in the entertainment industry, Mr. Bogner sees parallels between the concerns musicians have with licensing songs and the worries of scientists working on bird flu who fear their research might be taken without their receiving proper credit. He says he remembers browsing Napster -- the file-sharing network that used to allow people to download free music -- with the jazz musician Herbie Hancock, whom he calls a friend. When the two found a recording available for download that the musician hadn't even released yet, "the guy freaked out," Mr. Bogner remembers.

Mr. Bogner says he only really got interested in bird flu this past spring, after reading an article about Dr. Capua's effort. Mr. Bogner called her to see how he could help. She suggested he attend a bird-flu conference in Cambridge, England, in April to meet some of the major players in the influenza world.

At the conference, he found himself having lunch at a table with a handful of influenza scientists, one of whom was Nancy Cox, the director of the influenza program at the CDC. The two were both headed back to London, so they decided to ride the train together and talked the whole way.

While some are skeptical of his motives, other health experts think Mr. Bogner could bring a breath of fresh air to the issue, much as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has brought new ideas to the field of philanthropy. "I'm sure when Mr. Gates started getting into health people were saying, 'Who is this guy, what is he going to do?' " says Mr. Nicoll of the ECDC.

--Betsy McKay in Atlanta, Almut Schoenfeld in Berlin and Nonna Fomenko in Moscow contributed to this article.

Write to Nicholas Zamiska at

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