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Scientists Concerned About Restricted Access To Virus Database: Report

Scientists Concerned About Restricted Access To Virus Database: Report

Microscopic view of coronavirus. Photo: NIAID/Wikimedia Commons

Research groups across the world have sequenced the genomes of various novel coronavirus strains and shared the sequence data on public databases. One of them is the Global Initiative for Sharing Avian Influenza Data (GISAID).

These databases allow scientists to better track how the virus is changing. For instance, Medical News Today reported that according to GISAID, most infections with the B.1.1.7 variant of the virus have occurred in the UK, Denmark, Belgium, US and France.

Scientists can use the data in GISAID after confirming their identities. However, some restrictions have elicited a mixed response from scientists working on sequencing the coronavirus.

Meredith Wadman, staff writer for Science, reported on March 11 that scientists have raised concerns about who does and doesn’t get access to GISAID data, unexplained interruptions to access and a purported threat of legal action for breaching a resharing policy that GISAID has said is designed to protect the rights of those who generate the data.

Finlay Maguire, a genomic epidemiologist at Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia, told Science, “I was looking for a direct data feed for my website that would inform the public on evolution of variants in Canada and around the world. The onerous application requirements made me abandon GISAID.”

GISAID is based in Germany and is supported by private donors, governments and nonprofit organisations. It has more than 700,000 genomes from over 160 countries – making up the largest database of its kind for the novel coronavirus. It received GBP 3.5 million in contributions in 2020.

In a statement drafted in response to these concerns, GISAID said, “Any individual who registers with GISAID and agrees to its terms of use will be granted access credentials. On rare occasions, GISAID has found it necessary to temporarily suspend access credentials to protect its sharing mechanism.”

The WHO has recommended that all countries make more efforts to sequence genomes of the novel coronavirus and share the data publicly.

Thus far, only the National Institute of Virology, Pune, has sequenced the virus’s genomes in India – and according to Priyanka Pulla’s report for The Wire Science, it has been slow to publish its results on GISAID.

Shahid Jameel, a virologist at Ashoka University, Sonepat, told Live Mint on February 24 that there were 5,261 sequence entries from India in the GISAID database at the time. “With 11 million confirmed cases, that is a sequencing rate of under 0.05%,” he said.

Also read: India Isn’t Sequencing Enough SARS-CoV-2 Genomes, and That Puts Us in Danger

In January, 740 scientists ‒ including Nobel laureate Emmanuel Charpentier and Edith Heard, director-general of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory ‒ pushed back on restrictions posed by sequencing databases through an open letter.

They urged scientists working on sequencing the coronavirus to deposit in databases like GenBank, the European Nucleotide Archive and DNA Databank of Japan. According to them, these open databases allow more free data sharing.

“The ideal set up is completely open-access,” Guy Cochrane, head of ENA, told Science. “Having a limited group controlling access would never be a good thing.” he added.

Note: This article was updated at 7:24 am on March 16, 2021, to correct the role of GISAID and its data-sharing policies.

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