OFFLU, the OIE/FAO joint network of expertise on avian influenza, will systematically make avian influenza virus sequences accessible to the entire scientific community.
With this gesture OFFLU reiterates its call to the world scientists, international organisations and countries for a global sharing of virus strains and sequences.
Since its launch in April 2005, OFFLU has been mainly working on promoting the key objectives "to exchange scientific data and biological materials (including virus strains) within the network, and to share such information with the wider scientific community". Under this new impetus, strains will be sent to the US National Institute for Health for sequencing and deposited in full transparency on the free-access database, "GenBank".
On 14th March 2006, the Scientific Committee of OFFLU, made up of world leading veterinarian experts on avian influenza, revised its terms of reference to put new emphasis on the need for further collection, characterization and exchange of avian influenza viruses, and for the expansion of the genomic database for animal influenza viruses.
Sharing virus strains, samples and sequences is a critical part of the global work on the surveillance and control of the highly pathogenic H5N1 virus, and supports the preparation of human vaccines. Avian influenza brings long term implications for human health and therefore OFFLU works closely with the World Health Organization Working Group on Influenza Research at the human-animal interface.
Virus strains can be considered as intellectual property and sharing them can be seen as potentially hampering research progress and scientific publication. However, OFFLU went forward on February 16 th 2006 when Dr. Ilaria Capua of the Italian Istituto Zooprofilattico Sperimentale delle Venezie (Italy) and Chair of the Scientific Committee of OFFLU, released sequence data of the H5N1 virus found in Nigeria and Italy on GenBank. In the meantime, she urged 50 colleagues around the world to share their isolated H5N1 virus strains.
Scientists of the FAO/OIE network repeated their conviction in a letter published by the review 'Science' a few weeks later. "We will make available for genome nucleotide sequencing of H5N1 contemporary isolates from several countries and relevant historical strains," said Ilaria Capua and fellow Drs Ian Brown, Michael Johnson, Dennis Senne and David Swayne.
The stance taken by G8 leaders in Russia on global sharing of virus samples further strengthens this daring initiative. In its statement on the fight against infectious diseases, the Group of Eight declared being "determined to achieve tangible progress in improved international cooperation on the surveillance and monitoring of infectious diseases, including better coordination between the animal and human health communities, building laboratory capacities, and full transparency by all nations in sharing, on a timely basis, virus samples in accordance with national and international regulations and conventions, and other relevant information about the outbreaks of diseases."