The momentum is building to release the sequestered flu sequence data. The prestigious scientific journal Nature today published a strongly worded editorial, excerpts of which you can read Nature senior correspondent Declan Butler’s blog:
Indonesia has become the hot spot of avian flu, with the virus spreading quickly in animal populations, and human cases occurring more often there than elsewhere. Yet from 51 reported human cases so far — 39 of them fatal — the genetic sequence of only one flu virus strain has been deposited in GenBank, the publicly accessible database for such information.
Yet scientists outside the WHO networks have no access to these data. The problem last year spurred the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) to create a consortium to sequence and make public thousands of flu strains from humans and birds. Very quickly, this more open approach led to the useful discovery that viruses swap genes with each other more frequently than had been previously thought. (Nature; subscription required)
A Democrat (Dennis Kucinich) and a Republican (Wayne Gilchrest) are circulating a letter (.pdf) asking House and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt to require sequences obtained with DHHS funding to be deposited in GenBank, the publicly available respository of genetic sequences. Currently many sequences are being kept private by US agencies like CDC or deposited in a password protected database at Los Alamos National Laboratory for use by a Gang of Fifteen flu laboratories. Unacceptable behavior for scientists, and Nature is unequivocal about it:
When samples are sequenced, the results are usually either restricted by governments or kept private to an old-boy network of researchers linked to the WHO, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the FAO. This is a far cry from the Human Genome Project, in which all the data were placed in the public domain 24 hours after sequencing. Many scientists and organizations are also hoarding sequence data, often for years, so they can be the first to publish in academic journals. With the world facing a possible pandemic, such practices are wholly unacceptable. Nature and its associated journals are not alone in supporting the rapid prior exposure of data when there are acute public-health necessities.
Nature and its associated journals are not alone in supporting the rapid prior exposure of data when there are acute public-health necessities.
Declan Butler is a good reporter with good sources. He gives the opinion WHO will exert pressure to allow release of hoarded flu sequences by the end of the summer. Not fast enough for some, but a big step forward if it happens. We’ll see.
Meanwhile, my scientific colleagues need to get the message: if you hoard flu sequence data your reputation will suffer. Many of us will consider it a form of scientific misconduct in the context of “acute public-health necessities,” as Nature so delicately put it. Scientists I have admired and respected are now guilty parties, as are national health agencies like CDC and international ones like WHO. Flushing reputations down the toilet like this is a tragedy. I urge them in the strongest possible terms to make their flu data public. They can do so with a public statement of principle that includes all the accession numbers and appropriate requests to their colleagues to assign the proper credit in publications for use of the sequence data.
It’s past time.