Free access to research information in a public health emergency

In September 2015 the World Health Organization (WHO) set global norms for sharing research data and results when there’s a public health emergency arising, now the norms are being used for the first time.

share-informationIt was after the Ebola outbreak in several countries in West African as it became clear that the current methods of data sharing had major flaws. In order to enhance the data sharing, WHO decided to develop global guidelines that could be used when a major public health threat occurred in the future. The guidelines states that research data and research results should be made public as quickly as possible in order to facilitate further research in the subject. In its guidelines WHO writes, among other things:

Every researcher that engages in generation of information related to a public health emergency or acute public health event with the potential to progress to an emergency has the fundamental moral obligation to share preliminary results once they are adequately quality controlled for release. The onus is on the researcher, and the funder supporting the work, to disseminate information through pre-publication mechanisms, unless publication can occur immediately using post-publication peer review processes.

WHO is also very clear that they want to see a paradigm shift in the approach to sharing information in connection with emergencies. They want to leave the current approach, in which the magazine’s publishing timelines control when the information can be disseminated. Instead, the WHO wants the information to be disseminated openly through what they call “modern fit-for-purpose pre-publication platforms”. They explicitly call researchers, journals and funders to commit to the paradigm shift – to make it happen.

With the Zika virus spreading in South zikaAmerica WHO guidelines came into force for the first time earlier this month. On February 1, WHO declared that there was a so-called Public Health Emergency of International Concern. This led to that the guidelines came into force, and the WHO has opened Zika Open, a portal where research data and research results of the Zika virus are made available to the public. Several major journal publishers have created portals to make research on the Zika virus published in their journals available openly.

Hopefully, sharing research results and data will lead to more knowledge about the Zika virus, and maybe even a way to treat it. Couldn’t we think of this as “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”?

Text: Katharina Nordling
Picture: Colourbox