A Global Health Epidemic Is A Ticking Time Bomb - But Virus Databases Can And Are Helping To Save Lives

12/01/2017 12:40

The rapid spread of lethal infectious diseases is a global challenge which affects us all. Only recently the global health philanthropist and former chairman of Microsoft Corp, Bill Gates said the world's emergency response systems are not strong enough to cope with a deadly flu epidemic. Then only last week bird flu was confirmed in chickens and ducks in Wales following previous UK outbreaks in December.

These news stories have again brought to the fore the issues around how we respond and tackle global health epidemics. If we have learnt anything from the deaths of millions of people from diseases like AIDS, SARS, pandemic flu, Ebola, and Zika it is the need for scientists to share data quickly so that researchers can assess the dangers and develop new medicines and vaccines.

The global experience with recent outbreaks, however, reveals some big obstacles that can get in the way of rapid data sharing. Scientists may wish to withhold data until their scholarly studies are published; governments may be fearful about the repercussions of being associated with a major new outbreak; there may be intellectual property considerations around such data; countries sharing data will want to have access to new medicines and vaccines that are eventually developed; and it also remains challenging to find funders willing to pay for international databases. How to rapidly share scientific data about deadly viruses is thus an international diplomatic challenge dogging many global health organisations and scientists today.

But it is possible to develop new data sharing mechanisms that can work. At the University of Sussex we have for the first time analysed the work of the Global Initiative on Sharing All Influenza Data (GISAID), an initiative helping international scientists overcome the challenges involved in exchanging information about influenza viruses - including ones that could cause deadly global pandemics.

Published today a study, which I conducted together with Dr Gemma Buckland Merrett, shows that a key difference between the GISAID database and others is that it allows users to share data without infringing upon intellectual property rights that might exist around such information. It does this through a database access agreement governing the way individuals may access and use the virus data, and which all users must sign up to when they first register. Launched in 2008, the GISAID platform today enables influenza virus data from all over the world to be shared amongst its users - provided they agree to acknowledge the scientists and laboratories contributing the data and that they commit to working collaboratively.

This innovative approach has enabled the GISAID platform to build up a large database which now hosts more than 650,000 flu virus sequences. This is encouraging scientists to rapidly share data on potentially pandemic viruses like 'avian' flu (H5N1) and 'swine' flu (H1N1). In 2013 the database was also used for the rapid sharing of information about a new avian flu virus (H7N9) which had caused human deaths in China - raising significant international concern. Scientists in Beijing submitted the genomic sequences for the H7N9 viruses to GISAID on the same day that China reported the outbreak to the World Health Organisation (WHO). Using this data, companies were then able to begin the process of rapidly developing a new vaccine. What is more, GISAID also supports the WHO in coming up with its twice-yearly strain selection for flu vaccines - helping to save thousands of lives.

To protect the world against deadly viruses it is crucial that scientists can work together to respond rapidly. As a model, our University of Sussex study shows the GISAID database is working and is making an important contribution to global health in the field of influenza. Although each disease is of course different, there is an argument that governments across the world should also encourage scientists to use this type of setup as a blueprint to ensure the international community is prepared for outbreaks of future lethal infectious diseases.

Without sharing information about the pathogens that cause these deadly viruses it will be very difficult to properly assess the risk they pose to millions of people, to develop medicines and to mount an adequate international response. It is now becoming very clear that without databases, such as GISAID, we are leaving ourselves open to devastating pandemics and future generations will undoubtedly ask why, if we have a tried and tested solution, we failed to act now.