Global Challenges, 17 January 2017

Data, disease and diplomacy: GISAID’s innovative contribution to global health

Stefan Elbe1 and Gemma Buckland-Merrett2


Impact Statement:
The rapid spread of lethal infectious diseases is a global challenge potentially affecting any person around the world. To protect populations against such deadly outbreaks, it is critical that scientists and governments rapidly share in- formation about the pathogens causing them. Without access to such information, it will be very difficult to properly assess the risk posed to global health, to develop new medical countermeasures, and to mount a commensurate international response. However, recent outbreaks suggest several impediments to the rapid sharing of virus data. Scientist may wish to withhold data until their scholarly studies are published; governments are fearful about the repercussions of being associated with a major new outbreak, and it remains challenging to fund global public goods like an international database to host such data. Through the first study of the Global Initiative on Sharing All Influenza Data (GISAID), this article shows how it is possible to encourage the greater international sharing of such data through the careful design of new sharing mechanisms. GISAID has now developed a successful track-record in the field of influenza that may also serve as a useful blueprint for managing other diseases and global challenges requiring the international sharing of sensitive data.

Abstract
The international sharing of virus data is critical for protecting populations against lethal infectious disease outbreaks. Scientists must rapidly share information to assess the nature of the threat and develop new medical countermeasures. Governments need the data to trace the extent of the outbreak, initiate public health responses, and coordinate access to medicines and vaccines. Recent outbreaks suggest, however, that the sharing of such data cannot be taken for granted – making the timely international exchange of virus data a vital global challenge.

This article undertakes the first analysis of the Global Initiative on Sharing All Influenza Data as an innovative policy effort to promote the international sharing of genetic and associated influenza virus data. Based on more than 20 semi-structured interviews conducted with key informants in the international community, coupled with analysis of a wide range of primary and secondary sources, the article finds that the Global Initiative on Sharing All Influenza Data contributes to global health in at least five ways: (1) collating the most complete repository of high-quality influenza data in the world; (2) facilitating the rapid sharing of potentially pandemic virus information during recent outbreaks; (3) supporting the World Health Organization’s biannual seasonal flu vaccine strain selection process; (4) developing informal mechanisms for conflict resolution around the sharing of virus data; and (5) building greater trust with several countries key to global pandemic preparedness.

Impact Box:

What challenges does the study address?
The timely international sharing of virus data is critical for protecting populations against lethal infectious disease outbreak. Without access to such information, it is very difficult to properly assess the risk posed to global health, to develop new diagnostics, medicines and vaccines, and to mount a commensurate international response. However, experiences with recent outbreaks suggest that there are three challenges when it comes to sharing virus data. First, scientists may hesitate to share data on lethal viruses because they are concerned about other researchers then using this data to publish scholarly articles more quickly than they can do themselves – meaning their scientific contribution is not properly acknowledged and recognized. Second, governments might interfere with the international exchange of information because of concerns about the negative economic ramifications of being identified as the source country of an international outbreak. They may also wish to retain ownership over any potential intellectual property associated with the data and – particularly for low- and middle-income countries – will be keen to ensure that they can secure access to new vaccines or medicines subsequently developed on the basis of that cooperation. Finally, there is also a more practical public goods challenge in terms of who will actually provide the funding and material infrastructure for hosting such virus data.

What is new about the research?
This research presents the first study of a new mechanism for encouraging the international sharing of virus data that has been created in the field of influenza. Initially spurred by the global threat posed by human infections with highly pathogenic avian influenza (H5N1), the Global Initiative on Sharing All Influenza Data (GISAID) was launched in 2008 as a new mechanism for incentivizing and promoting the international sharing of virus data.

What are the implications of the research?
The research shows how it is possible to overcome some of the challenges associated with the international sharing of virus data through the skillful design of new sharing mechanisms that are sensitive to the needs of stakeholders. Already, this important sharing mechanism has developed a successful track-record in the field of influenza and may also serve as a useful blueprint for other diseases and global challenges that depend on the international sharing of sensitive data. The research further shows how philanthropic actors can play an important role in bringing about novel global health initiatives and how important it is to build trust in new global health initiatives. Finally, the research also illustrates how innovative solutions to global challenges can be found when lessons are creatively applied from one issue area to another and that such cross-sectoral learning should be encouraged.

1Centre for Global Health Policy, School of Global Studies, University of Sussex, Brighton BN1 9SN, UK
2Centre for Global Health Policy, University of Sussex, Brighton BN1 9SN, UK


How to cite:
Elbe, S., and Buckland-Merrett, G. (2017) Data, disease and diplomacy: GISAID's innovative contribution to global health. Global Challenges, 1: 33–46. DOI: 10.1002/gch2.1018

© 2017 John Wiley & Sons Ltd.