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Scientists propose sharing genetic data on birdflu

Written by: Staff
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GENEVA, Aug 25 (Reuters) Leading scientists called yesterday for the establishment of a global consortium to share genetic data from bird flu cases, deemed vital for tracking mutations and developing a vaccine against a human pandemic.

In a letter to science journal Nature, 70 scientists and health officials said the current level of collecting and sharing of data on the H5N1 avian influenza virus was ''inadequate ... given the magnitude of the threat''.

In its press release, Nature (www.nature.com/nature) went further accusing some scientists and organisations of ''hoarding'' sequence data, often for years, so as to be the first to publish it in academic journals.

''We propose to expand and complement existing efforts with the creation of a global consortium -- the Global Initiative on Sharing Avian Influenza Data (GISAID) -- that would foster international sharing of avian influenza isolates and data,'' wrote the scientists, who include six Nobel laureates.

Researchers taking part in the consortium would agree to share their sequence data, analyse the findings jointly and publish the results collaboratively, they said.

Bird flu remains essentially an animal disease, but experts fear that the H5N1 virus could mutate into a form that could pass easily among humans and kill millions.

The virus has killed 141 people since 2003 among 241 known cases in 10 countries, mostly in Asia, the World Health Organisation (WHO) says.

THOSE NOT SHARING Currently countries send samples taken from suspect cases for confirmation to international laboratories recognised by the WHO, but they must give the greenlight for the United Nations health agency to release the genetic data.

China, Thailand and Vietnam, three of the most hard hit by the virus, were among those not sharing genetic information, although Indonesia has recently agreed to do so, the New York Times reported yesterday.

The WHO, which declined to confirm or deny the newspaper report, yesterday renewed its appeal for putting all genetic sequencing information in the public domain in a statement issued on its website (www.who.int) to coincide with the letter.

''WHO believes that timely sharing of H5 virus sequence information is a critical step for improving the international response to the avian and pandemic influenza threat,'' it said.

Genetic data is important for vaccine development, preparing reagents used for diagnostic purposes and monitoring drug-resistant strains, according to the Geneva-based agency.

Under the proposed consortium, data would be deposited in three public data bases in Japan, Europe and the United States.

Scientists must have full access to comprehensive genetic sequencing, as well as clinical and epidemiological data from both animal and human virus isolates, the scientists said.

WHO spokesman Dick Thompson said the agency ''absolutely supported'' the idea. ''Rapid sharing of sequence information is important but it has to be linked with epidemiological and clinical data to be complete,'' he added.

REUTERS SKU PM0909

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