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

August 1, 2006

FAO reiterates data sharing policy on H5N1

Filed under: avian influenza — admin @ 9:41 pm

Last week I revealed that since summer 2005 almost no avian flu poultry isolates have gone from Indonesia to the joint network of national and international reference laboratories run by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE).

I therefore found it interesting that today the FAO issued a statement reiterating the policy on data sharing which it announced earlier this year. I’ve pasted its statement below.

Declan, on vacation near Bordeaux
PS Nature has a piece online today on the CDC’s experiments “mixing genes from an H5N1 bird-flu strain with those from an H3N2.” It’s interesting research but the bottom line as stated in the article is that:

“These data do not mean that H5N1 cannot convert to become transmissible from person to person,” says Julie Gerberding, director of the CDC. “We are not out of the woods on pandemic preparedness yet.”

Here’s the FAO statement:

Avian flu: global sharing of virus samples
Another joint FAO/OIE initiative
1 August 2006, Rome – 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’s 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 U.S. National Institutes of Health for sequencing and deposited in full transparency on the free-access database, GenBank.

On 14 March 2006, the Scientific Committee of OFFLU, made up of the world’s 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.

Critical to surveillance and control efforts

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 16 February 2006 when Dr Ilaria Capua of the Italian Istituto Zooprofilattico Sperimentale delle Venezie in 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.

G8 support

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.”

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