Even as the World Health Organization presses China and other countries to share bird-flu data for the public good, the WHO itself runs a database limited to a select group of scientists and containing a massive trove of data -- some 2,300 genetic sequences of the virus, around a third of the world's known sequences, according to two people familiar with the database's contents. Any one of those sequences could hold clues to an effective human vaccine or drugs that could kill the virus, or help scientists determine how great a threat it poses.
Now, a lone Italian researcher has cast a harsh spotlight on the WHO's system, suggesting that it places academic pride over public health – and snubbing it by posting prized bird-flu data in plain view.
Ilaria Capua, a 39-year-old Italian veterinarian working on avian influenza in a government lab, last month received a sample of the virus in the mail from Nigerian health authorities. The virus had just attacked birds in Nigeria, the first confirmed case of the disease in Africa. The sample was something of a prize, a chance to study a specimen and explore how it spread from its stronghold in Asia.
Within days of isolating the virus, Dr. Capua says, she got an offer from a senior scientist at the WHO in Geneva, whom she declined to name, to enter her finding in the closed system. She could submit the virus's genetic information, or sequence, to the database. In exchange, she would be given the password to the WHO's massive stash of data. A spokesman for the WHO confirmed that the offer was made.
Instead, Dr. Capua posted the gene sequence in a public database accessible on the Internet. She also sent a letter on Feb. 16 to around 50 of her colleagues urging them to do the same with their bird-flu samples.
"If I had agreed" to the WHO's request, she said in an interview, "it would have been another secret sequence."
The WHO, normally an outspoken advocate of transparency, says it limits access to the database so scientists and governments will share bird-flu data they might otherwise hoard to further their own research. Scientists with access to the system can collaborate with each other but must agree not to publish results without prior consultation. Michael Perdue, a leading scientist at the WHO in Geneva, says the system has proven to be a useful compromise, because some sharing is better than none.