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Thursday May 15, 2008 MYT 1:41:26 PM

Indonesia agrees to hand bird flu information to new online database

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP): Indonesia's health minister said Thursday she would start sharing all genetic information about her country's bird flu virus with a new global database, to monitor whether the disease is mutating into a dangerous pandemic strain.

China, Russia and other nations that have long withheld influenza virus samples and DNA sequencing data from international databases are also taking part in the initiative, saying it offers full transparency and, for the first time, basic protection of intellectual property rights.

Indonesian Health Minister Siti Fadilah Supari became an unlikely hero in the bird flu fight when in January 2007 she decided to buck the WHO's 50-year-old virus sharing system, which obliged member countries to submit bird flu samples and data to the global body, saying it was unfair to developing countries.

She was worried pharmaceutical companies would use Indonesia's virus strains to develop costly vaccines that would ultimately be in accessible to her own people. Even the prestigious medical journal, The Lancet, acknowledged she had a point.

But her decision to withhold virus samples and data from the global body for more than a year triggered a firestorm among international health experts. By making it impossible to see if her country's virus strain was mutating, they said, she could be endangering the planet.

"We have always promoted the sharing of influenza data, all we asks for is that it be done in a fair, transparent and equitable manner,'' Supari said in explaining her decision to hand over DNA sequencing data for both humans and animals to the new, online site.

"It think it's wonderful,'' said Peter Palese, who studies influenza viruses at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, adding that it will help researchers make sure the virus isn't mutating to a form that spreads more easily between people, with the potential to kill millions worldwide.

"It goes in the direction of creating a global health conscience.''

The free, online site launched Thursday, 18 months after strategic adviser Peter Bogner and 77 influential scientists and health experts wrote a letter to Nature magazine calling for information about bird flu to be shared more quickly and openly, and creating the Global Initiative on Sharing Avian Influenza Data, or GISAID.

Until then, research organizations often kept their own repositories of influenza sequencing data. In the case of bird flu, the World Health Organization was keeping crucial information in a private database at a U.S. government laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico, making it accessible to just a few laboratories.

That revelation _ made public by Italian veterinarian and researcher Ilaria Capua in early 2006 _ angered many foreign governments and scientists who said it was dangerous to restrict vital data to a select few.

Several boycotted WHO's long-standing virus sharing system, instead depositing important bird flu information into existing but often inadequate public databanks.