Wall Street Journal, August 31, 2006

A Nonscientist Pushes Sharing Bird-Flu Data


HONG KONG -- Last week, when Peter Bogner announced he was leading an effort to get bird-flu scientists to share important data, the academic journal Science summed up the scientific community's reaction: Under a photo of Mr. Bogner, it ran the caption, "Peter who?

After all, while scientists around the world were racing to unravel the mysteries behind the deadly flu virus, the 42- year-old Mr. Bogner was organizing a sailboat race in the Mediterranean. His résumé also includes work for Time Warner Inc. on numerous international television ventures, and a membership on the board of the International Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, the group that awards the annual Emmy Awards.

Nonetheless, he and a group of scientists have already managed to stitch together a network of the world's top flu scientists and persuaded them, in principle, to share data that could speed research on avian flu, which could kill millions of people around the globe if it becomes more contagious. Last week, the effort led to the publication of a letter in the journal Nature in which 70 scientists -- including six Nobel laureates -- committed themselves to share data more quickly and openly. In an editorial published today, Nature describes the initiative as "only a beginning" but adds that it is "encouraging that so many leading flu researchers have signed up to its principles."

Mr. Bogner and the scientists are confronting a thorny problem that often pits scientific ambition against the demands of public health, whether with bird flu or other diseases. Scientists around the world collect important samples and data, but they don't always want to make them public because sharing the information could jeopardize their chances of publishing papers and promoting their careers. Governments sometimes balk, too, for fear of losing access to the raw material for valuable vaccines.

In the case of the bird-flu virus, some of the coveted information is kept by the World Health Organization in a private database, accessible only to a limited group of researchers. The WHO says countries would never have shared information with its elite network of scientists without that restriction.

But sharing the data more widely could unearth important clues to the virus's evolution and help scientists figure out how to fight the disease. Earlier this year, Ilaria Capua, an Italian veterinarian and researcher, called on scientists to boycott the WHO's database and make their bird-flu data public. In their letter in Nature, the 70 scientists agreed, in effect, that they would sidestep the WHO database, as well as stop hoarding data for themselves.

Mr. Bogner became a champion of scientific cooperation through an unlikely route. He was born and raised in Germany, then made his way to the US where he began producing television projects, that led to a career in broadcasting at Time Warner Inc and work for other media conglomerates such as Bertelsmann, Viacom, and Liberty Media.

Mr. Bogner became aware about a heightened pandemic scenario during a discussion with US Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff at the World Economic Forum in Davos, learning about the US Government's preparedness concept on dealing with the potential of a flu pandemic. While attending a luncheon in Cambridge, England, in April, he found himself at a table with, among others, Nancy Cox, the director of the influenza program at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The two rode the train together back to London, talking the whole way.

Some health experts were initially skeptical of Mr. Bogner's motives, but agreed he brought a breath of fresh air and made everybody focus on the issue. His time in the entertainment industry has helped him see parallels between artists' concerns with licensing intellectual property and the worries of scientists that their research on bird flu may be taken without providing proper credit. He recalled browsing Napster -- the file-sharing network that used to allow people to download free music -- with the jazz musician Herbie Hancock. When the two found a recording available for download that the musician hadn't even released yet, "Mr. Hancock was very disturbed" Mr. Bogner recalls.

Mr. Bogner's campaign also serves to highlight that the WHO, a United Nations agency, is often constrained from taking tough stands against countries that don't cooperate because its officials work for and are funded by its 192 member states.

While the Nature signatories list is dominated by animal-health scientists, it also incorporates scientists at seven of the eight WHO reference laboratories. Bruno Baron, a spokesman for the Institut Pasteur in Paris -- the only reference laboratory not on the list - - says that its inclusion was "only delayed for administrative reasons."

Dick Thompson, a spokesman for the WHO in Geneva, says the agency "absolutely supports rapid sharing" of sequence data for H5N1, the avian-flu strain that scientists fear may mutate into a form that will spread more easily from human to human.

"Perhaps this consortium of scientists and a strategic planner like Bogner will be better able to accommodate the cultures and concerns of these countries," he adds. "If so, we will all benefit. Right now we believe that we are doing the best work possible."

--Betsy McKay in Atlanta, Almut Schoenfeld in Berlin and Nonna Fomenko in Moscow contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2006 Dow Jones & Company

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