Science & Environment

Ebola: Call for more sharing of scientific data

Ebola virus under the microscope Image copyright EYE OF SCIENCE/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY
Image caption Ebola virus under the microscope

Ebola is an international emergency so why isn't more data on the virus being made public? asks Helen Briggs.

The devastation left by the Ebola virus in west Africa raises many questions for science, policy and international development.

One issue that has yet to receive widespread media attention is the handling of genetic data on the virus.

By studying its code, scientists can trace how Ebola leapt across borders, and how, like all viruses, it is constantly evolving and changing.

Yet, researchers have been privately complaining for months about the scarcity of genetic information about the virus that is entering the public domain.

A world leading tropical disease expert told me last year that he had concerns about why so little genetic data about the virus was being released.

In the last few days, scientists have been speaking on and off the record about their concerns.

One researcher said few teams working on the virus had been prepared to share valuable information that could have helped in the quest for knowledge.

Another scientist told me that governments had not put enough pressure on research teams to release data that could help other scientists make medical discoveries.

Open data

One researcher who has been speaking out is Dr Peter Walsh of the University of Cambridge.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption A health worker wearing protective clothing waits outside Redemption Hospital in Monrovia, Liberia

"After some notable efforts at open data sharing early in the outbreak, the publication of viral genetic data has completely dried up," he said.

"These data are absolutely critical to assessing whether the virus is evolving towards greater transmissibility, whether vaccines and treatments are likely to be effective, and many other important questions.

"The more people who seek to answer the questions, the more likely they will be answered quickly and decisively."

At the heart of the issue is the scientific process. The main way scientists are rewarded for their work is through the quality and number of research papers they publish.

Data is only revealed for scrutiny by the wider scientific community when the research is published, which can be a lengthy process.

Publishing issues

Dr Emma Thomson of the MRC-University of Glasgow centre for virus research says all journals publishing papers on Ebola must insist all data is released, as a collaborative approach could save lives.

"At the time of publication is really important - these days most people do it but not always and journals often insist (but not always)," she told me.

"A lot of Ebola sequencing has happened but the data hasn't always been uploaded.

"It's an international emergency so people need to get the data out there to allow it to be analysed in different ways by different labs."

In the old days of the public private race to decode the first human genome, the mood was one of making data accessible to all for the good of science and society.

Genetic science and public attitudes have moved on, but in the case of Ebola, some are saying it may be time for a re think.

As Prof Paul Hunter, Professor of health protection at the University of East Anglia, put it: "It would be tragic if, during a crisis like this, data was not being adequately shared with the public health community.

"The rapid sharing of data could help enable more rapid control of the outbreak."

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