Genetic Data sharing, key in Health Crises

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By Lexi Elo

Genetic information could help slow outbreaks may be kept private by researchers out of fear of violating patients’ rights, SciDev reports reveal. At the height of the Ebola epidemic, the authors of the piece sequenced 99 Ebola genomes from patients in Sierra . The data was immediately uploaded to the public database GenBank and led to a surge in collaborations that eventually confirmed the virus had spread from Guinea to Sierra Leone, and indicated that the outbreak was being sustained by human-to-human transmission.

But the researchers wrote of a slump in the numbers of Ebola virus genomes isolated from patients and uploaded to data repositories after theirs in mid-2014. That’s problematic, since the open sharing of data is essential to designing effective responses to outbreaks.

The researchers argued that of the biggest barriers to open sharing of genetic data during health crises is the lack of coherent, internationally recognised guidelines on gaining informed consent from patients.

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Although such data is routinely anonymised, it’s still theoretically possible to identify participants from it. So scientists might avoid sharing genetic data they collect for fear that it could be misconstrued and used to stigmatise vulnerable populations. This might have partly caused the mid-2014 slump.
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