posted by admin on 31/08/06
70 scientists -- including six Nobel laureates -- to share data more quickly and openly.
HONG KONG -- Last week, when Peter Bogner announced he was leading an effort to get bird-flu scientists to share important data, the academic journal Science summed up the scientific community's reaction: Under a photo of Mr. Bogner, it ran the caption, "Peter who?"
After all, while scientists around the world were racing to unravel the mysteries behind the deadly flu virus, the 42-year-old Mr. Bogner was organizing a sailboat race in the Mediterranean. His résumé also includes work for Time Warner Inc. on several television ventures, membership in a group that awards the Emmys and an instructional video entitled "Peter Bogner's Skiing Techniques."
Nonetheless, he and a group of scientists have already managed to stitch together a network of the world's top flu scientists and persuaded them, in principle, to share data that could speed research on avian flu, which could kill millions of people around the globe if it becomes more contagious. Last week, the effort led to the publication of a letter in the journal Nature in which 70 scientists -- including six Nobel laureates -- committed themselves to share data more quickly and openly. In an editorial published today, Nature describes the initiative as "only a beginning" but adds that it is "encouraging that so many leading flu researchers have signed up to its principles."
Mr. Bogner and the scientists are confronting 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, but they don't always want to make them 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 the coveted 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 restriction.
But sharing the data more widely could unearth important clues to the virus's evolution and help scientists figure out how to fight the disease. Earlier 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. In their letter in Nature, the 70 scientists agreed, in effect, that they would sidestep the WHO database, as well as stop hoarding data for themselves.
Mr. Bogner became a self-appointed champion of scientific cooperation through a circuitous and unlikely route. He was born and raised in Germany, then made his way to Los Angeles, where he began editing television projects. That led to a career in media, he says, including work for Bertelsmann AG and Viacom Entertainment Group.
Mr. Bogner says he became interested in working on bird flu this past spring, after reading an article about Dr. Capua's effort. He called her to see how he could help, and she suggested he attend a bird-flu conference in Cambridge, England, in April. At the conference, he found himself having lunch at a table with, among others, Nancy Cox, the director of the influenza program at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The two rode the train together back to London, talking the whole way.
Some health experts are skeptical of Mr. Bogner's motives, but others think he could bring a breath of fresh air to the issue. He says he's a layperson with business savvy whose perspective as an outsider may help. "You just have to understand you're never an expert in the field," he says. "You become the glue."
He also says his time in the entertainment industry has helped him see parallels between musicians' concerns with licensing songs and the worries of scientists that their research on bird flu may be taken without providing proper credit.
Of course, collecting signatures is still a largely symbolic move, and it 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 committing to share more data. But according to the WHO, China has yet to share a batch of virus isolates taken from birds that it promised to provide this year, though it has shared other isolates and data. 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.
Mr. Bogner's campaign also serves to highlight that the WHO, a United Nations agency, is often constrained from taking tough stands against countries that don't cooperate because its officials work for and are funded by its 192 member states.
But Dr. Capua says the initiative "is not an attack on WHO." It's just that the WHO's decision to maintain a database of publicly inaccessible information is no longer tenable. "The system needs to change as the system is evolving," she says.
While the Nature signatories list is dominated by animal-health scientists, it also incorporates scientists at seven of the eight WHO reference laboratories. Bruno Baron, a spokesman for the Institut Pasteur in Paris -- the only reference laboratory not on the list -- says that its inclusion was "only delayed for administrative reasons."
Dick Thompson, a spokesman for the WHO in Geneva, says the agency "absolutely supports rapid sharing" of sequence data for H5N1, the avian-flu strain that scientists fear may mutate into a form that will spread more easily from human to human.
"Perhaps this consortium of scientists and a publicist will be better able to accommodate the cultures and concerns of these countries," he adds. "If so, we will all benefit. Right now we believe that we are doing the best work possible."
--Betsy McKay in Atlanta, Almut Schoenfeld in Berlin and Nonna Fomenko in MoscowWrite to Nicholas Zamiska at firstname.lastname@example.org