A database designed to help researchers worldwide develop vaccines for avian and seasonal influenza viruses, not to mention the prolific H1N1 "swine flu," is now at the center of an ugly rift between its co-creators. Both the Global Initiative on Sharing Avian Influenza Data (GISAID) Foundation that initiated the effort and the Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics (SIB) that built the actual influenza gene sequence "EpiFlu" database claim ownership of the project, thanks to legal and financial entanglements that the courts will now have to sort through.

For now, the spat has led to the existence of two EpiFlu databases (one launched Monday by the Washington, D.C.–based GISAID Foundation and the other managed by SIB), a situation that could undermine the goal of building a central repository to improve the sharing of data on influenza.

GISAID announced plans to create the original EpiFlu database following the 2006 H5N1 avian influenza outbreak as a way of providing researchers with quick access to gene sequence data. The foundation then contracted SIB to do the programming required to build the actual database.

Scientists in more than 150 countries have used the GISAID EpiFlu database as a free source of public information-sharing about influenza gene sequences since it went online in May 2008. Trouble surfaced for GISAID on July 27, however, when SIB cut off access to the EpiFlu data from the GISAID.org site. Citing "contractual and legal issues," SIB redirected all registered users to an SIB Web site for access to the information.

"SIB disconnected from our portal and told the researchers to connect directly to SIB," says a GISAID Foundation board member who asked not to be identified due an ongoing court case with SIB in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia and an arbitration proceeding in Geneva, Switzerland.

SIB director Ron Appel said in a statement that GISAID had not paid his organization in full for its work and that, under Swiss law, a default on payment renders a contract null and void, giving SIB the rights to the database it built.

The GISAID Foundation disputes this claim, saying SIB had been paid for its work by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Swiss government. SIB had "no right to do so or to operate the EpiFlu database on its own," according to the foundation board member.

Biotech companies such as Alphavax in Research Triangle Park, N.C., and Novavax, Inc., in Rockville, Md., rely on information contained in the EpiFlu database to help them develop prototype influenza vaccines without the need to wait for the CDC to release a virus reference strain, something that can take several weeks following an outbreak. Their approach promises to allow them to make vaccines rapidly and in high volume, compared with the more conventional chicken egg–based approach.

The EpiFlu model is similar to the open-source software model, where programmers can use freely available pieces of code from the Web to build or improve their software. (A prime example of a successful open-source project is the Linux operating system.) Under the terms of EpiFlu access, all users agree to share their own data for free, give due credit when using others' data, and work collaboratively.

GISAID's new influenza database was developed independently of SIB and WHO by the Max Planck Institute for Informatics Department of Computational Biology and Applied Algorithmics, along with a3 systems, GmbH, a maker of content management system software. The database features information about nearly 30,000 isolates (or virus samples), including the contents of the original database (which SIB still manages) as well as new findings contributed to GISAID by the veterinary reference laboratories of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Organization for Animal Health.

The GISAID database initially was created in part to address complaints by researchers in developing countries who say a previous data-sharing system run by WHO forced them to give up intellectual property rights to their virus samples when they sent them to WHO. The virus samples would then be used by private pharmaceutical companies to make vaccines that are awarded patents and sold at a profit at prices many poor nations cannot afford, the Associated Press reported in October 2008.

Another impetus for the GISAID information bank came in 2006 when Italian veterinarian and researcher Ilaria Capua revealed that in the case of bird flu, WHO was keeping some crucial information in a private database in Los Alamos, N.M., making it accessible to just 15 laboratories, the Associated Press reported in May 2008.