updated 8/23/2006 3:30:56 PM ET 2006-08-23T19:30:56

U.S. health officials have placed the genetic blueprints of more than 650 flu viruses into a public database, in an attempt to increase flu research and set an example for other nations.

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention deposited the information last week, CDC officials said Tuesday.

The genetic information is only for naturally circulating viruses isolated in the United States. It includes data from the annual U.S. flu season, animal flu viruses that infect humans, and new strains that may emerge in this country, such as the H5N1 bird flu.

The data were deposited in Genbank, a public-access library for virus sequences managed by the National Institutes of Health, and in a database housed at Los Alamos National Laboratories.

The action stems from a collaboration with the Association of Public Health Laboratories, which represents state labs, where most of the virus information originates.

The organizations expect to bank genetic information for several hundred flu viruses each year, CDC officials said,

Scientists need easy access to information about evolving viruses for their work on vaccines and treatments, said Rosemary Humes, the association’s director of infectious diseases.

“It really is important that researchers have access to information about influenza viruses as they change each year,” she said.

The action follows instances in which some Asian countries failed to share bird flu information with the CDC and the World Health Organization. In Indonesia, officials for months withheld the blueprints of H5N1 viruses isolated from people and poultry. The country this month changed its position and sent isolates abroad.

After the Indonesian government agreed to share the information, CDC officials placed total genome sequences for about 40 of the H5N1 viruses into GenBank.

“We hope these initiatives will set the stage for other countries to adopt similar approaches to the release of influenza virus sequence data that they manage,” Dr. Nancy Cox, director of the CDC’s Influenza Division, said in a statement.

Some developing countries are reluctant to share bird flu data because they believe pharmaceutical companies will use it to create vaccines they won’t be able to afford, said Edward Hammond, director of the Sunshine Project.

“The way that the CDC should set an example is to attack the problem of vaccine costs rather than simply insist that openness is the solution. Openness is only part of the solution,” he said.

The Sunshine Project is an Austin, Texas-based organization that advocates more control of biological weapons and biotechnology. Hammond voiced concerns when CDC officials last year recreated the 1918 pandemic flu virus and decided to place the gene-sequencing information in GenBank.

He is not as worried about the public availability of genetic information on naturally circulating viruses, he said. “This is not really a bioweapons issue,” Hammond said.

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