Last year, as avian bird flu H5N1 skipped around the world decimating bird populations and fatally infecting clusters of humans, governments near and far felt increasingly threatened by the possibility of a influenza pandemic. Tension and mistrust increased among countries at a time when full cooperation among them was essential to public health.
Countries promised $1.9 billion to a United Nations avian flu program but had yet to fulfill their pledges. The World Health Organization (WHO) established a repository for virus information from member countries at the Influenza Sequence Database (ISD) at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico in 2004, but the agency had a spotty history trying to deal effectively with infectious disease and was accused of beholden to the "gang of fifteen" labs given access to the data. The World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) and the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) also committed to sharing data, but like the WHO, answered to their member states and could do little to compel countries to share resources. Private labs, the CDC, and individual countries like Russia, and China, had all been withholding data and biological samples, sometimes because of poor international relations, concern about intellectual property rights, or concern about credit for their contributions.
In response to the fragmentation in the research community, scientists, politicians and public health officials fulminated, concerned that hording virus and sequence samples would hobble effective responses to outbreaks. In February of 2006, Italian influenza scientist Ilaria Capua called on fellow scientists to promptly deposit their sequence data into gene banks."'Most of us are paid to protect human and animal health,' she said, 'If publishing one more paper becomes more important, we have our priorities messed up.'" ( Science 3 March 2006: Vol. 311. no. 5765, p. 1224)
By August she and about 70 influenza research allies, along with international consultant Peter Bogner, announced the establishment of a new, more open and collaborative system. Capua, Bogner, David Lipman, Nancy Cox and the others submitted a letter to the journal Nature announcing the Global Initiative on Sharing Avian Influenza Data (GISAID), a more collaborative and egalitarian effort to collect and share data in the scientific community.
Last summer, people welcomed the initial announcement of GISAID and had high hopes for the collaborative approach. Yet some scientists are reserving their opinions until they know the exact terms of the agreement, still undisclosed. Others are openly skeptical of Bogner's motives, and wonder out loud why a media privatization mogel who is better known in skiing and sailing circles would pursue such a venture. For his part, he says he understands the issues scientists have with data rights from working with musicians. According to collaborators he has infused energy and financial backing to the project, and according to Science, might help bring future corporate funding .
Will sharing data help the frayed international relations? Emily Fitri of the Jakarta Post wrote her perception of the country's untenable situation in an article this week. Its unclear how well this represents the government's position in the wake of its agreement with Baxter. In summary she thought Indonesia and poor countries should be incensed for being used as "petri-dishes". While Indonesia struggled with geographical and informational challenges to containing bird flu she said, wealthier countries take cultures to study and make vaccines without offering assurance that whatever resulting remedy will shared with the country for an affordable cost. Indonesia has a right to be angry she says:
"There is a local saying cacing pun marah ketika diinjak, literally translated as even a worm gets upset when stepped upon. This must seriously be pondered upon by those with greater power to review their initial righteous intentions of creating a better world."
Indonesia said earlier this week that it would share data as soon as it is promised affordable vaccines. Perhaps GISAID will help promote the cooperation that is needed but it seems like a daunting challenge. Whatever relations are in place before a pandemic will be further tested in a crisis. Russia is in the midst of trying to control recent H5N1 outbreaks among birds in 8 villages around Moscow. The Moscow Times reported on the situation this week:
"A sign reading "Quarantine" welcomed a steady stream of vehicles passing through the checkpoint. The vehicles slowed down to drive over disinfectant-soaked sawdust intended to clean their tires. The traffic policemen took turns standing out in the icy wind and stopping drivers, ordering some to open the trunks of their cars and show their documents in a temporary cabin nearby."
The country is trying to vaccinate all birds and control the outbreak. One could imagine this scenario anywhere in the world. Some Russians interviewed for the Moscow Times article said that the control methods were arbitrary and that drivers circumvented the blockades by driving through surrounding villages. Others said it was a lot of hoopla for nothing. One veterinary worker who the Moscow Times interviewed commented: "Two chickens die and all this blows up. It's ridiculous."
Scientists agree that international cooperation is necessary to prevent infection and develop vaccines, and in the case of contagious human infection, to contain the disease and distribute medicines. Hopefully GISAID's accomplishment in meeting its six on-line month goal will reinforce the hope it engendered last August and help promote cooperation that citizens of the world are dependent on -- granted, a tall order.
We also wrote about Avian Flu in these articles: Avian Flu v. Everyday Plagues, "Hopes For Avian Flu Vaccine"; "Modeling Epidemics", and "Avian Flu in China- Increasing Resistance", "Avian Flu Updates", and Avian Flu Pandemic -- Officials Save The Date"