It's a David and Goliath battle that
could affect the world's ability to monitor diseases and develop
lifesaving vaccines. The key issue: Should Indonesia and other
developing nations have a say over crucial genetic data about their
own deadly viruses?
An international network of top influenza scientists says yes,
arguing that is the best way to speed development and research, but
they are running into resistance from within the World Health
Organization, which opposes letting countries keep intellectual
property rights to virus samples they provide for research.
The intensifying standoff was triggered in part by revelations
that the WHO, for years looked upon as the protector of the poor,
had been keeping coveted information about bird flu and other
viruses in a private database in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and making
it available to just 15 laboratories.
Some foreign governments called for a boycott of the global
body's 55-year-old virus-sharing system, which had obliged them to
freely hand over samples and data.
The problem with that system, they say, is that developing countries give up intellectual property rights to their virus
samples when they provide them to the WHO. The virus samples are
then used by private pharmaceutical companies to make vaccines that
are awarded patents - and sold at a profit at prices many poor
nations can't afford.
Acknowledging a need for change, the WHO agreed to work with
developing nations to make sure they had better access to lifesaving
medicine, an intensely bureaucratic process that is about to enter
its second year with no clear end in site.
In the meantime, leading influenza scientists and health experts
came up with their own solution to alleviate the basic concerns of
transparency for developing nations, one that appears to be making
some at the WHO nervous.
The scientists' nonprofit organization, which goes by the name of
GISAID, launched a publicly accessible online database that - for
the first time ever - offers basic intellectual property rights to
those who submit genetic information.
That has encouraged many countries including Indonesia, China,
Russia and others to again start sharing information about their
viruses, turning GISAID into the world's largest and most
comprehensive influenza database in just four months.
"I'm in favor of what works. If nothing is working, we have to come up with something new," said Bruce Lehman, who served as
Commissioner of Patents and Trademarks under U.S. President Bill
"And if you have a mechanism that is going to encourage the
dissemination of scientific data, of research, well, then that is
going to be positive in terms of coming up with new treatments for
However, the WHO appears to be going to extreme lengths to stand
in GISAID's way, including withholding funding that has been pledged
for the database.
The World Health Organization, meanwhile, is seeking US$10
million for its own database and virus tracking system, even though
its own scientists are already using GISAID's free-of-charge site
almost exclusively, including for last month's virus strain
selection for the annual flu shot, said Masato Tashiro, director of
WHO's collaborating center at Japan's National Institute of
Because many scientists played a key role in helping design the
system to meet their needs, they are befuddled at the WHO
Secretariat's refusal to embrace them.
David Heymann, the global body's top flu official, said the
reason was simple.
For the first time in decades, developing countries are looking
at the global body with mistrust, and officials cannot afford to be
partial to any group, he said, adding this was a direct order from
WHO Director-General Margaret Chan.
Heymann supports keeping viruses in the public domain - something
that effectively strips countries of ownership rights - and, until
recently, other top officials in Geneva maintained it was important
some genetic data remained behind closed doors.
In the most recent dispute over GISAID's free database, the WHO
has refused to hand over US$450,000 provided by the U.S. Centers of
Disease Control for the database's development well over a year ago.
That is a lot of money for the feisty group of influenza
scientists, given that their director, Peter Bogner, a former
television broadcaster who rallied to their cause two years ago, has
largely financed the initiative on his own.
"We are working with WHO to get these funds mobilized for their
intended purposes," said Bill Hall, spokesman for the U.S.
Department of Health and Human Services, also frustrated after
receiving conflicting reasons for the delay.
The WHO's Heymann said CDC money had been earmarked for a
specific project - a database - but not a particular organization.
"We have to go through a competitive bidding process," he told AP - a process in which GISAID would be ineligible to compete
because it is a nonprofit organization.
Developing nations, which have a key stake in the project,
meanwhile alleged that a WHO-commissioned report comparing five
databanks, from GenBank to Los Alamos, carried out by the global
body's four collaborating centers was deliberately kept secret.
Scientists ranked GISAID superior on almost all levels, from the
amount and type of information included to functionality, but
several member states said, when requesting an update, they were
told no assessment had been carried out.
Indonesian Health Minister Siti Fadilah Supari said Friday if the
goal was to force members states to use an expensive and substandard
database and tracking system created by WHO, it wouldn't work.
"It would certainly add the lingering mistrust many feel toward
WHO," she said.