ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
As the Zika virus spreads through the Americas, scientists are racing to learn more about it. The urgency is leading them to do things in new ways. Yesterday, researchers in Wisconsin injected the virus into a pregnant monkey, an experiment to explore how Zika affects the brain of a developing fetus. It's an experiment in another way, too. As NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports, these researchers are publicly sharing all of their data in real time as the pregnancy progresses.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Would you like to see the ultrasound of a pregnant monkey that has Zika? Just go to the website of Dave O'Connor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His team is posting the infected monkey's ultrasounds and blood tests. He's also writing a running commentary that talks frankly about things like the emotional impact of looking at a primate's ultrasound when you know what damage Zika could potentially do.
O'CONNOR: I don't think that viewing a moral need to do the work and feeling sad and heartbroken that the - what that working entails - I don't think those two are mutually exclusive.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says a couple weeks ago, he was in Brazil and kept seeing pregnant women on the street. It really hit him that they were all potentially at risk from Zika and so little is known about this virus.
O'CONNOR: I've come to the conclusion that there is an ethical and a moral imperative to study the most relevant animal model to get the most impactful and valuable data.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Making sure that the data has the biggest impact is why he's releasing it right away, letting complete strangers follow the experiment as it happens. This kind of openness is not the norm in biology. Usually, researchers would collect data, analyze it, maybe present it at a conference, eventually, submit a manuscript to a scientific journal. It might not get published for more than a year.
O'CONNOR: In the case of a public health emergency like Zika virus, the journals are aware that there is a certain urgency to communicating the results, but that process can still take weeks to months.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He didn't want to wait. After all, doing the experiment publicly means that other experts can contact him and suggest changes or offer help. And the early results could maybe help other groups better plan their own Zika studies so they could get results faster and use fewer animals.
KRISTIAN ANDERSEN: I haven't seen a researcher before essentially publishing all the raw data from experiments. I think that's great. That's certainly new to me.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Kristian Andersen is a biologist at The Scripps Research Institute. During the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, he and his colleagues sequenced Ebola viruses taken from patients and made that genetic information public unusually quickly - like, within 48 hours of generating it.
ANDERSEN: My take on it is that for, you know, public health emergencies like Ebola and like Zika, it's really a no-brainer. The data has to be made publicly available as soon as possible.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Still, this kind of rapid data sharing is so new there's a lot that isn't yet sorted out, like how to make sure scientists get proper credit their work, even if it's not formally published. Thomas Friedrich is a researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who's collaborating with O'Connor on the Zika experiments in monkeys. He was in favor of being totally transparent.
THOMAS FRIEDRICH: I understand that not everyone in science is going to feel the same way. And because we don't have codified rules and because we don't have established norms, the level of data sharing that each individual scientist thinks is appropriate is going to vary widely
GREENFIELDBOYCE: But that might start to change depending on the results of data-sharing experiments like this one. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.