RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We're going to make a turn now and talk about something called parachute researchers. This is what critics call them, and they're scientists from wealthy nations who swoop in when a puzzling disease breaks out in a developing country. They collect specimens, then return home to analyze them. They don't share their discoveries with people fighting the epidemic on the ground. Now, the Zika outbreak has prompted a groundbreaking effort to end parachute research for good. NPR's Nurith Aizenman has more.
NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: 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...
NATHAN YOZWIAK: So then there was radio silence. There were many months in which no new Ebola sequences came out.
AIZENMAN: Nathan Yozwiak of the Broad Institute and Harvard University is one of the scientists on that original team. And he notes that plenty of other researchers were going into West Africa to do genetic sequencing. But a lot of those scientists were waiting on prestigious journals to publish their findings. And journals prefer exclusives. Yozwiak says the delay had consequences.
YOZWIAK: Those were the critical periods in which you were seeing the most cases across West Africa and yet the fewest amount of sequence data was coming out at that time.
AIZENMAN: Now the scientific community has launched an unprecedented effort to make sure there's no parachute research when it comes to Zika, which has been spiraling through South and Central America and has been linked to serious birth defects. Dr. David Heymann is a professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the chair of the World Health Organization's emergency committee on Zika.
DAVID HEYMANN: I myself have been guilty of parachute research in the past.
AIZENMAN: But he's seen the light.
HEYMANN: 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, and that means in the country.
AIZENMAN: So encouraged by the WHO, some of the big research funders are making scientists promise they'll reveal results ASAP. Major journals have announced that they'll still publish Zika findings that have already been made public. Still, Heymann says there have been hiccups.
HEYMANN: There was once incidence in particular...
AIZENMAN: Earlier this year, some researchers from Brazil, which is the epicenter of the outbreak, did the right thing by uploading Zika virus genome sequences they had done 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. It seemed to confirm scientists' worst fears.
HEYMANN: It caused an alarm bell to ring.
AIZENMAN: 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 then copyrighted those products to sell at prices that are unaffordable for the developing country. Dr. Paulo Gadelha heads the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, a medical research institute under Brazil's ministry of health.
PAULO GADELHA: In the past, there was a very sort of rapacious way of dealing with developing countries. In Brazil, we use the term bio-piracy.
AIZENMAN: Bio-piracy - but preventing it this time is raising challenges of its own. For instance, Brazil's been writing new rules for taking samples outside the country, but there are reports that's leaving some researchers in limbo. Here's Heymann, the WHO adviser again.
HEYMANN: Yeah, the whole thing is a real wicked problem.
AIZENMAN: Still, he says, all these challenges around sharing samples and data are being worked out in ways that could fundamentally change how researchers operate long after the Zika outbreak.
HEYMANN: It could then develop a global consensus eventually and hopefully could serve as a standard for research in the future.
AIZENMAN: Nurith Aizenman, NPR News.
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