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US government funding for one of the world's main stores of information on the genetics of flu viruses has ended, potentially jeopardising research on the bird flu virus that experts fear could spark a human flu pandemic.

Laboratories in developing countries such as those in Asia where the H5N1 virus has killed more than 60 people might be unable to afford the proposed fee of US$10,000 a year to access the Los Alamos National Laboratory's online database.

Since November 2004, the database's administrator Catherine Macken has reported on the funding crisis — she estimates it has cost US$2.5 million to develop and maintain the database since it was set up in 1998.

Over the past year, the database has tried to move to subscription-based access to support its running costs.

Aware that access to the database is vital for flu researchers in poor countries, the database administrators are hoping to collaborate with the private sector to set up 'needs-based' scholarships for non-commercial institutions. Researchers who cannot afford a subscription are being given temporary access while their scholarship applications are processed.

The database is one of the most comprehensive collections of genetic information about influenza viruses.

By comparing the genetic sequences of flu viruses that are collected regularly across the world with older viral species and strains, scientists can learn about how the virus evolves and moves between countries.

The shift from the database being free to charging for access is "improper," says Girish Kotwal, professor and chair of medical virology at the University of Cape Town, South Africa.

Terry Besselaar of the Vaccine Preventable Virus Infections Unit at South Africa's National Institute for Communicable Diseases says, however, that he does not think that restricting access to the database will affect vaccine research. He points out that vaccine researchers can obtain virus samples from the World Health Organization.

The database's administrator Catherine Macken would not comment on "sensitive questions" about the situation, and referred SciDev.Net to Allen Morris, the Los Alamos National Laboratory's technology transfer division.

"We are trying to scramble whatever resources are available," Morris told SciDev.Net before adding that he could not provide any more information.

Morris told US-based Time magazine last week that the database "is running on vapour".

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