The New York Times, March 15, 2006

Secret Avian Flu Archive

New York Times Editorial

At a time when health authorities are racing to head off a possible avian flu pandemic, it is distressing to learn that the World Health Organization is operating a secret database that holds the virus's genetic information. A lone Italian scientist has challenged the system by refusing to send her own data to the password-protected archive. Instead, she released the information publicly and urged her colleagues to do the same. She is surely right. The limited-access archive should be opened or bypassed immediately to encourage research on this looming health menace.

The campaign by Ilaria Capua, an Italian veterinarian who works on avian influenza, was spotlighted in recent articles in the journal Science and The Wall Street Journal. The hidden data could be of immense value in determining how the virus is evolving and in developing effective vaccines or drugs. The possibility of breakthroughs can increase only if many more scientists can analyze the data.

The rationale for the closed system is that the restrictions encourage scientists who are worried about being scooped by rivals to share their data on a limited basis even before they have published their findings in a journal. Confidentiality is also needed, some say, to encourage skittish countries, worried about bad publicity or the loss of intellectual property, to release the genetic sequences of viruses found on their territory.

Those arguments seem insubstantial now that some top W.H.O. officials and other health authorities have called for opening the exclusive- access system. Academic and national pride must not be allowed to slow potentially crucial health research.

Copyright © 2006 The New York Times Company

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