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Science & Tech

For science or the scientist

Does the WHO database pit careerism against medical breakthroughs?

Gerry Keusch says it was clear a decade ago that bird flu research needed funding.

What happens when what’s best for the scientist isn’t what’s best for science? 

This is the dilemma faced by the World Health Organization (WHO), which has been collecting genetic sequences on the bird flu virus as it spreads around the world, from Asia to Europe and Africa. Researchers have been tracking the virus, alert to the danger that it may mutate into a virus that can pass from human to human, possibly triggering a pandemic on the scale of the one that in 1918 killed between 20 million and 40 million people worldwide.

Access to the virus’s genetic sequences, such as those being collected by WHO, are critical in the race to understand how the virus is changing and how it might be thwarted with a vaccine. But scientists, including those who are working on the virus, build their careers on published research and discoveries they can claim as their own. Plus, many worry about what bioterrorists could do with bird flu data. For those reasons, WHO keeps this crucial information in a password-protected stash, open only to those researchers who have contributed data on the virus. 

The debate over the limited access to the WHO database heated up

recently, with many scientists publicly criticizing the health organization for putting scientific prestige above the best interests of world public health. Last week, the same week that Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt predicted that bird flu would reach America within months, criticism of the WHO policy reached the editorial page of the New York Times.


BU Today spoke with Gerald Keusch, Medical Campus assistant provost, School of Public Health associate dean for global health, and director of BU’s Global Health Initiative, about the bird flu controversy. To listen to the interview, click here.

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