Declan Butler, reporter This is the personal blog of Declan Butler, a senior reporter at Nature. All views expressed here are mine, and not those of Nature. Contact me at

July 12, 2006

Indonesia cluster mutations

Filed under: avian influenza,Open data — admin @ 10:54 pm

Just a quick signpost to an article I’ve published in Nature tonight revealing the full mutations in the recent Indonesian cluster where human to human transmission occurred. Some abbreviated excerpts:

A strain of avian flu that spread through a family in Indonesia, killing seven of the eight people infected, was accumulating mutations as it spread from person to person, according to confidential sequence data seen by Nature. The functional significance of the mutations isn’t clear — most of them seem unimportant. But influenza researchers say the finding reiterates the need for sequence data to be made more widely available, if the virus is to be better understood.

WHO said on 23 May that there was “no evidence of genetic reassortment with human or pig influenza viruses and no evidence of significant mutations”.

The data obtained by Nature suggests that although the WHO statement was not incorrect, plenty more could have been said. Viruses from five of the cases had between one and four mutations each compared with the sequence shared by most of the strains. In the case of the father who is thought to have caught the virus from his son — a second-generation spread — there were twenty-one mutations across seven of the eight flu genes.

On sharing data:

Paul Gully, who recently joined WHO as senior adviser to Margaret Chan, head of the WHO’s pandemic-flu efforts, defends the agency’s position. He points out that the WHO’s priority is investigating outbreaks, not academic research. And he adds that although calls for more complete genome data and wider sharing of samples are “a valid point”, labs are stretched during outbreaks, and don’t have the time or resources to do high-quality sequencing.

He agrees that sharing samples with other researchers would allow such work to be done. But he says the WHO must work within the constraints set by its member states — they own the data, and decide whether to share it. “As more countries share data, hopefully that research will get done,” he says.

The WHO has not formally asked Indonesia to share the sequences, Gully adds. “We would rather wait and see what Indonesia decides.”

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