Bird flu database to be established

A global initiative has been launched by some of the world's top scientists and health officials to encourage more openness when it comes to sharing data on bird flu.

They want to see more genetic data from bird flu cases being shared and say it is of vital importance in tracking mutations and for a vaccine to be developed to prevent a human pandemic.

As a rule data on avian flu outbreaks is either restricted by governments or kept private by a small network of researchers.

Countries presently send samples taken from suspect cases for confirmation to international laboratories recognised by the World Health Organization (WHO), but they must give the green light for the U.N. health agency to release the genetic data.

In a report published online in the journal Nature, 70 scientists, including six Nobel laureates and health officials say that current collecting and sharing of data on the H5N1 avian influenza virus was "inadequate ... given the magnitude of the threat".

They also say many scientists and organizations are hoarding data so that they can be the first to publish in academic journals.

The new Global Initiative on Sharing Avian Influenza Data (GISAID) has been created to encourage scientists and nations to share data rapidly with other scientists worldwide and will be open to all scientists provided they agree to also share their own data, credit the use of others` data, analyze findings jointly, and publish the results collaboratively.

Although the WHO is not directly involved, it has given it's full support to the initiative.

Hualan Chen, the head of China's national avian influenza reference laboratory, was among the health officials who signed the report, though China along with Thailand and Vietnam, three of the countries worst hit by the virus, have been among those not sharing genetic information, and Indonesia has only recently agreed to do so.

GISAID director Peter Bogner says the spirit of the initiative is to guard against exploitation and protect the interests of those providing the data.

Bird flu remains predominately a disease of animals, but experts have long feared the H5N1 virus could mutate into a form that could pass easily among humans and kill millions.

According to the latest figures from the WHO, to date the virus has killed 141 people since 2003 among 241 known cases in 10 countries, mostly in Asia.

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