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Launch of new flu database ruffles feathers

A scientific group grappling for control of EpiFlu--a free, publicly available database of influenza gene sequencing--creates a new one with the same name.

Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore is based in Portland, Oregon, and has written for Wired, The Christian Science Monitor, and public radio. Her semi-obscure hobbies include climbing, billiards, board games that take up a lot of space, and piano.
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
3 min read

After several months of strain with the developer of a flu database, the Global Initiative on Sharing Avian Influenza Data launched its own, admittedly less robust database interface on Monday.

GISAID has been under contract with the Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics since 2006 to promote its flu data via a platform called EpiFlu, which has been live since 2008. But since SIB removed access to EpiFlu from the GISAID Web site in July due to alleged late payments, GISAID has been working on developing a new version, now live.

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It all started in 2006, when Italian veterinarian and researcher Ilaria Capua announced that the World Health Organization was hoarding crucial information about the H5N1 avian influenza in a private database in Los Alamos, N.M., which only a handful of laboratories could access.

Capua refused to share her research with an organization that did not then share it with the larger scientific community, and she called on other scientists to follow suit. In a March 2006 editorial, the journal Nature joined her cry of outrage with its "Dreams of Flu Data" rebuke:

When samples are sequenced, the results are usually either restricted by governments or kept private to an old-boy network of researchers linked to the WHO, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the FAO. This is a far cry from the Human Genome Project, in which all the data were placed in the public domain 24 hours after sequencing.

GISAID was formed to address not only the concerns of Capua and colleagues, but also of developing nations claiming that the data-sharing system run by WHO forced them to relinquish intellectual-property rights to their virus samples, which would then be used by private pharmaceutical companies to make patented vaccines, which would then be sold back for profit with a price tag these countries could not afford.

In other words, these countries had little--if any--incentive to share data on the flu, and their unwillingness to share was impairing the scientific community's ability to effectively study the flu's global patterns.

The SIB-GISAID collaboration on the EpiFlu platform, which features genomic and epidemiological data on tens of thousands of virus samples, until recently seemed to be working smoothly. During the H1N1, or "swine flu," outbreak, so many sequences were being submitted to the database so quickly that researchers were literally watching clusters of outbreaks in real time.

The free EpiFlu Database has been compared to open-source systems such as Linux. Linux

Then, in July, SIB removed EpiFlu access from the GISAID Web site, making it available only to users redirected to SIB's Web site. SIB claims that GISAID had breached its contract by failing to pay its bills on time, thereby relinquishing its rights to the database.

As it launched a new version of EpiFlu based on the same data that it says is in an "early developmental phase" this week, GISAID claimed in a statement that SIB has illegally misappropriated the initial version of EpiFlu:

SIB's misappropriation of the first database flagrantly violated numerous provisions of SIB's agreement with GISAID; more importantly, SIB's illegal actions greatly undermined the usefulness of the first EpiFlu database and threatened the worldwide effort to combat the pandemic H1N1 swine flu, the H5N1 avian flu, and seasonal influenza.

Though neither party is commenting further, what with all the legal ramifications, Ron Appel of SIB did say: "We regret that GISAID is diverting users to a new database...It is unfortunate that such an important service as the EpiFlu database is being jeopardized by this legal issue, especially at a time when A(H1N1) influenza 2009 is such an important health issue."

Having two publicly available flu databases could, Scientific American puts it, "undermine the goal of building a central repository to improve the sharing of data on influenza." The SA article goes on to compare the EpiFlu project to the open-source model:

The EpiFlu model is similar to the open-source software model, where programmers can use freely available pieces of code from the Web to build or improve their software. (A prime example of a successful open-source project is the Linux operating system.) Under the terms of EpiFlu access, all users agree to share their own data for free, give due credit when using others' data, and work collaboratively.

Which brings us full circle to that adorable Linux Penguin, a digital rendering whose 0s and 1s preclude it, as luck would have it, from requiring an avian flu vaccine.