Seventy of the world's top influenza experts today announced an initiative aimed at ending secrecy over research data on avian flu. The Global Initiative on Sharing Avian Influenza Data (GISAID), has already been joined by seven Noble laureates, and is welcoming all scientists provided they agree to share their own data, credit the use of others' data, analyse findings jointly, and publish the results collaboratively.

Peter Bogner, GISAID's director, said that to understand how avian influenza viruses spread and evolve - and become pandemic - scientists from different fields of expertise around the world needed immediate access to high-quality genetic, clinical and other data from both animal and human outbreaks of the disease.

He noted, however, that much data on avian flu outbreaks were currently either restricted by governments or kept private by a small network of researchers linked to international animal and public health agencies. He added that many scientists and organizations were also hoarding sequence data, often for years, so that they could be the first to publish in academic journals.

The latest initiative, announced in the Correspondence section of Nature online is designed to encourage scientists and nations to share data rapidly with other scientists worldwide. The three major publicly-available databases participating in the International Nucleotide Sequence Databases Collaboration - the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, the DNA Data Bank of Japan and GenBank - have already said they will publish data as soon as possible after analysis and validation, and certainly no later than six months after submission, in line with GISAID requirements. A list of current signatories will be available on the GISAID website:

The race is on

The race is currently on to find effective new drugs and vaccines against H5N1 avian flu, following its emergence as a serious human pathogen in the Far East. Last month, UK drugs firm GlaxoSmithKline said it had developed a vaccine against H5N1 bird flu that may might be available for mass production by 2007. An interim analysis of a 400-patient trial conducted in Belgium suggested that GSK's formulation - which includes just 3.8mcg of H5N1 antigen and includes a novel, proprietary adjuvant to boost its activity - stimulated a protective immune response in over 80% of subjects.

One of Glaxo's main rivals, the French drug company Sanofi-Aventis, has also been working on a vaccine, as has Chiron, Akzo Nobel, MedImmune and Baxter International. According to World Health Organisation figures, 31 vaccines against bird flu are currently being tested in clinical trials, with 22 targeting the H5N1 strain that has infected 186 people in eight countries and killed over 100.

An even bigger concern is that H5N1 could mutate into a more easily transmissible avian-human hybrid virus that would cause an influenza pandemic. Experts predict that such a virus could kill millions of people and infect millions more worldwide. It is uncertain what degree of protection, if any, H5N1 vaccines would offer against such a pandemic strain. By Michael Day