CDC Opens Up Flu Archives

In response to growing criticism about the lack of access to influenza data, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia, on 22 August made public the sequence of more than 650 genes from flu viruses isolated in the United States. The agency also pledged to immediately release newly generated flu sequence information from now on--including data on the dangerous H5N1 avian influenza strain, should it arrive in the United States.

Many scientists have pushed influenza labs to be more generous in sharing influenza sequences, in particular those from H5N1, which has so far killed at least 141 people worldwide. Some H5N1-affected countries don't allow the release of the data, and some scientists have also been less than forthcoming, for instance because they want to publish a paper first. That lack of openness prevents the larger scientific community from studying the way influenza viruses spread and accrue dangerous mutations, critics say.

Under the new plan, CDC, in a collaboration with the Association of Public Health Laboratories (an affiliation of U.S. state and local health labs), will put all sequence information on the several hundred different flu isolates it studies every year into publicly accessible databases such as GenBank as soon as possible. Most of that data will be from annual flu strains such as H3N2 and H1N1, which trigger far fewer worries. But the agency says the data will be useful to influenza researchers anyway. Besides, it hopes to set an example for analogous organizations in other countries.

As a World Health Organization Collaborating Center, CDC has received H5N1 samples from several affected countries, but it cannot on its own decide to release those data as well; it needs the countries' permission. Three weeks ago, the Indonesian government allowed CDC and the University of Hong Kong to release data from Indonesian viruses. Nancy Cox, who heads CDC's influenza division, says she hopes that other countries will follow suit.

"I'm very pleased" by CDC's decision, says Ilaria Capua, a virologist at the Istituto Zooprofilattico Sperimentale della Venezie in Italy, who called on colleagues to release avian influenza data in March (Science, 3 March, p. 1224). Also this week, a large, international group of researchers is calling for a Global Initiative on Sharing Avian Influenza Data, Capua notes (Science, 25 August). "The momentum for sharing is clearly building."

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