Flu database rocked by legal row

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Dispute over ownership raises concerns among flu scientists.

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A question mark is hanging over the future of EpiFlu, an international database created to help monitor the spread and evolution of influenza viruses. The database openly shares genetic, epidemiological and clinical data that previously had often been hoarded by countries and scientists, and is contributing to the rapid analysis of viral gene sequences from the current H1N1 pandemic.

EpiFlu has become mired in a legal dispute between the Global Initiative on Sharing Avian Influenza Data (GISAID), an international group created by leading flu researchers in August 2006 to promote data sharing (see Nature 442, 981; 2006), and the Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics (SIB) in Geneva. GISAID announced a contract with the SIB in December 2006 to build the EpiFlu database. Most funding for EpiFlu came from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Swiss government.

“I hope they reach the best solution for the sake of global health. ”

The row became public on 27 July, when visitors to the EpiFlu landing page on the GISAID website were met with a message from the SIB informing them that the database was currently unavailable on that site "due to contractual and legal issues", and instead was available only to users redirected to a SIB website. The same day, the SIB e-mailed the same message to all registered users of the database.

The next day, GISAID also e-mailed users to assert that the SIB "had no right [to cut off the access to the EpiFlu Database via GISAID] or to operate the EpiFlu Database on its own".

Both SIB and GISAID officials declined to discuss the details because of the ongoing legal dispute. But the SIB alleges that GISAID has breached its contract by failing to pay its bills on time. GISAID officials say that although there had been a hiatus in its funding, they had acted in good faith and had subsequently obtained additional funds to meet some of the bills.

"GISAID continues to work with the SIB to resolve their monetary dispute," says Cheryl Bennett, an official at the GISAID Foundation's Washington DC office. "However, before the monetary dispute can fairly be resolved, GISAID must receive an accurate accounting from the SIB, which GISAID has requested but the SIB has thus far not provided."

She asserts that the SIB's continued operation of the database, including GISAID's trademark logos and data-access agreement, amounts to "misappropriation" of the database, and claims that under the terms of the contract, all EpiFlu data remain GISAID's property, giving the SIB no right to operate the database independently.

However, the SIB had written to GISAID in September 2008 declaring that it was terminating their contract. The SIB argues that GISAID has not settled its bills in full and that, under Swiss law, a default on payment renders a contract null and void, giving the SIB the rights to the database it built.

Since then, the SIB claims that it has operated the database without asking for more money from GISAID, and has taken fund-raising for the database into its own hands.

Although researchers can still access the database, public-health officials are worried by the longer-term implications of the row. Before the creation of GISAID, several countries — including Indonesia, an avian flu hotspot — had refused to share sequence data on the grounds that they got little in return. But they were persuaded to share by GISAID's terms of access, similar to those of open-source software, in which all users agree to share their own data and give due credit to the originators.

"Indonesia has been supportive of GISAID from the outset," says Widjaja Lukito, a senior policy adviser at the country's ministry of health. He adds that he is watching "with great concern the problems faced by the GISAID Initiative during this pandemic phase". He says that he strongly hopes that "the parties involved will reach the best solution for the sake of global public health".

One flu scientist, who is a member of GISAID's scientific council, adds that EpiFlu is more than just the database computing infrastructure built by the SIB. Considerable effort has been invested by GSAID and its partners in "building trust" between the scientific community and countries who have sequence data to deposit, and in contributing influenza expertise.

Lawyers for both the SIB and GISAID have in the past weeks made confidential settlement offers to each other, and both say they are keen to reach a peaceful settlement. "The SIB is 100% committed to the EpiFlu database as part of the GISAID initiative. We are working very hard to find the best possible solution for all concerned," says Ron Appel, head of the SIB.

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Butler, D. Flu database rocked by legal row. Nature 460, 787 (2009) doi:10.1038/460786b

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