Critics call them "parachute researchers": Scientists from wealthy nations who swoop in when a puzzling disease breaks out in a developing country. They collect specimens, then head straight back home to analyze them. They don't coordinate with people fighting the epidemic on the ground — don't even share their discoveries for months, if ever.
Sometimes it's because they want to publish their results – and medical journals prefer exclusives. And sometimes it's because they can make a lot of money by coming up with copyrighted treatments for the disease.
Now there's concern that parachute research could make it harder to stop the Zika outbreak. In response scientists and global health officials have launched an unprecedented worldwide effort to curb the practice.
Step one, they say, is to recognize that parachute research is a chronic problem. Take the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Early on a team of scientists was able to sequence the genetic code of virus samples. They immediately made the information public. And the sequences gave a useful picture of how and why Ebola was spreading. But after that, "there was radio silence," says as one of the scientists, Nathan Yozwiak of the Broad Institute and Harvard University. "There were many months in which no new Ebola sequences came out."
But in fact, there were plenty of other researchers going into West Africa to do genetic sequencing. A lot of those scientists were simply waiting on prestigious journals to publish their findings.
Yozwiak says the delay had consequences. "Those were the critical periods in which you were seeing the most cases across West Africa — and yet the fewest amount of sequence data."
Dr. David Heymann, a professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, is sympathetic to some of the impulses and incentives that keep researchers from sharing data. "I myself have been guilty of parachute research in the past," he says.
But Heymann, who chairs the World Health Organization's emergency committee on Zika, is now among those leading the charge to prevent parachute research from hampering the response to Zika.
"If you want really to have a rapid public health response you have to make sure that that data is available as soon as it's known," says Heymann. "And that means in the country."
Encouraged by WHO, some of the big research funders are making scientists promise they'll reveal results of Zika research immediately. And major journals have announced they'll still publish Zika findings that have already been made public. Still, Heymann says there have been hiccups.
Earlier this year some researchers from Brazil — the epicenter of the outbreak — did the public-spirited thing by uploading Zika virus genome sequences they had produced to an online public database. Soon after, scientists from Slovenia used that data in a paper they published in the New England Journal of Medicine without sharing credit.
Heymann says it seemed to confirm scientists' worst fears. "It caused an alarm bell to ring."
There's also concern about the profit motive that's driven a lot of parachute research. Foreign scientists have used the specimens they gather to develop diagnostic tests, vaccines or treatments that are then sold at prices that are unaffordable for the developing country.
"In the past there was a very rapacious way of dealing with developing countries," says Dr. Paolo Gadelha, head of the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, a medical research institute under Brazil's ministry of health. "In Brazil we use the term 'bio-piracy.'"
Preventing bio-piracy raises challenges of its own. For instance Brazil has been writing new rules for taking samples outside the country. But there are reports that's leaving some researchers in limbo as they wait for the rules to be finalized.
In short, observes Heymann, "The whole thing is a real wicked problem."
Still, he says he's confident all these kinks around sharing samples and data are being worked out. And he says the benefits could last beyond Zika.
"It could then develop a global consensus eventually and hopefully could serve as a standard for research in the future."