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WHO Still Hoarding H5N1 Sequence Data

Recombinomics Commentary

July 12, 2006

One possibility is that the father simply caught a different strain of virus from birds, although other mutations in his virus are similar to those in the strain isolated from his son.

None of the sequence data from the Indonesian cluster has been deposited in public databases - access is restricted to a small network of researchers linked to the WHO and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia.

But Paul Gully, who joined the WHO two months ago as senior adviser to Margaret Chan, head of the agency'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."

The above comments from tomorrow's Nature highlight the dangers of H5N1 spread in large familial clusters, and clearly demonstrates WHO's unwillingness to release the sequence data they are hoarding at the Los Alamos flu database.

The large number of polymorphisms in the father of the nephew supports a dual infection in the father,  He acquired one of the rare polymorphisms from his son via recombination.  The polymorphisms were not evenly distributed, indicating there was also reassortment.  Dual infections lead to rapid genetic change.  Moreover, testing of patients in Indonesia remains poor.

Most of the human sequences in Indonesia do not match any published avian sequence, although a large number of bird sequences from Indonesia have been made public in databases or have been presented at scientific meetings.  H5N1 bird flu is rapidly evolving in Indonesia, but the evolution may not be in avian hosts.

The testing remains poor because a connection with dead or dying birds is required for H5N1 testing, yet the only match for the human H5N1 has been H5N1 from a cat (see phylogenetic tree)..

Indonesia has already indicated the data can be released, but WHO refuse to make such a request, so the data hoarding continues.

These sequences should be released immediately.

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