Release of H5N1 Sequences

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During the past year, H5N1 has spread rapidly across the world, having first appeared in Asia but now also in Europe and Africa. The H5N1 strains currently circulating are quite different from the one detected in Hong Kong in 1997. Since then, the virus has developed the ability to infect more and more species of birds -- both domestic and wild -- and has found its way into mammals, including large and small cats as well as stone martens and dogs.

To date, H5N1 has also (as far as is known) infected 218 people in several countries including China, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Turkey, Iraq, Egypt and Djibouti, resulting in the deaths of 124 of them. Most seem to have contracted the disease from close contact with domestic or wild birds, but health officials are concerned that human-to-human transmission may have occurred recently in the case of a family in Indonesia. Should H5N1 acquire the ability to easily transmit from person to person, a worldwide pandemic could erupt, potentially killing millions of people.

A recent editorial ("Dreams of flu data") in the journal "Nature" decried the fact that:

"Genetic data are also lacking. When [H5N1] samples [collected from animals or human patients] 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 US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the FAO.... Many scientists and organizations are also hoarding sequence data, often for years, so they can be the first to publish in academic journals. With the world facing a possible pandemic, such practices are wholly unacceptable. Nature and its associated journals are not alone in supporting the rapid prior exposure of data when there are acute public-health necessities....

"Only [by releasing the sequences] can researchers establish and track the global pattern of the evolution of the bird-flu virus."

And, hopefully, work quickly toward an effective vaccine should H5N1 develop into a pandemic.

We, the undersigned, call on all governments, health authorities such as the World Health Organization (WHO), and other flu scientists who are researching H5N1 who have not yet released sequence data (such as the CDC, St. Jude's, Weybridge and Mt. Sinai), to deposit them immediately in GenBank. The future of humanity may very well be at stake here -- there is no longer any time to waste.