Photo: Allec Gomes/Unsplash.
COVID-19 has changed many human enterprises, some permanently, and one of them is perhaps the way we do and publish science. There seems to be an increased awareness of the importance of collaboration, and while political leaders have locked their borders, scientists have been dissolving theirs, creating a global collaboration.
This fundamental change is sustained by enhanced scientific communication, fast-paced sharing of data and cooperation. However, to call these changes improvisatory and unprecedented would miss the wood for the trees.
Such collaborations are neither ad hoc nor unstructured. It is grounded in, and reflective of, a well-developed, long-standing and increasingly popular idea of knowledge creation and dissemination known as ‘open science’.
Although there’s no settled definition, the philosophy of open science is informed by the idea that research communities must share socially useful knowledge, including scientific research, freely and without charge.
Following the open science model, the Global Initiative on Sharing All Influenza Data (GISAID) has been in the spotlight for all the right reasons. GISAID is a collaboration that enables timely sharing of genetic sequencing data related to COVID-19 in a freely accessible database. Several countries have deposited more than 4,000 sequences of the novel coronavirus already; India itself has deposited two.
The fast and open sharing of genetic sequences has allowed researchers to continuously track the spread of the virus. GISAID has also catalysed the development of diagnostic kits, prototype viruses for research, and medical countermeasures like vaccines and antibodies.
GISAID’s genesis can be traced to the outbreak of the H5N1 influenza in 2006. At the time, the global health architecture was handicapped by a lack of wider access to H5N1 influenza genetic sequence data. The prompt sharing of information about pathogens responsible for life-threatening outbreaks has generally been regarded as critically important. However, technological and institutional gaps meant researchers couldn’t immediately acquire it.
To be sure, other public domain databases like GenBank existed at the time but they couldn’t successfully encourage researchers to rapidly share their data, even in the event of a fast-spreading epidemic. Many researchers were justifiably apprehensive about their data being used without acknowledging them or their efforts. Indeed, market-based systems of innovation and knowledge production, based on intellectual property rights, are also poor frameworks in which to provide such information, especially for basic or non-excludable goods of great social value.
Genetic sequencing data, or GSD, is a basic information commodity. As the lawyer Amy Kapczynski noted in her seminal 2017 article on open science, informational resources such as GSD “must be able to be accessed by many parties and recombined readily to be useful. Also, it is hard to assign a value in advance to any particular fact, datum, or sample when it comes to GSD. This particular characteristic makes market based exclusionary mechanisms like intellectual property rights sub-optimal tools to produce the goods [GSD] that we need.”
Against this background, researchers conceived GISAID to bridge the institutional gap and so create a framework to facilitate a collaborative, publicly accessible mechanism for sharing data. The database averts the tragedy of the commons without especially restricting access to and use of its data.
Indeed, here the Database Access Agreement (DAA) is important. As the centrepiece of GISAID’s open science mechanism, the DAA provides a set of rules to providers and users to share, access and use the data. According to these rules, GISAID’s data is open access and fully accessible by anyone, thus fulfilling a longstanding demand of scientists and researchers, subject to a number of conditions. First, users and recipients are required to credit the originating (and submitting) labs in any research output. Second, the DAA encourages users to collaborate with the originating laboratory and involve them in analyses and further research involving the data. Some other provisions even provide recourse to arbitration in case a user fails to abide by these rules.
To ensure transparency, GISAID also offers an electronic tracking system that allows anyone to see who has sent and/or received virus samples. So, for example, technologically superior countries like the US that obtain sequences from other countries can’t apply for patents without the permission of the country that provided the data.
All together, the GISAID mechanism has been relatively successful since its implementation in 2008. It has played, in the words of two researchers, “a crucial role in the timely exchange of information integral to the selection of pre-pandemic vaccine viruses” and, in the words of two others, is “a good example of sharing GSD in relation to public health emergencies”. In general, to researchers GISAID stands for a model mechanism that enables them to rapidly share data in many contexts.
In turn, GISAID’s success itself renders it the foremost advocate for open science, a testament to the belief that the collective use of shared resources can be both sustainable and efficient.
Ishupal Singh Kang and Sachin Sathyarajan are both lecturers at Jindal Global Law School. Kang teaches and studies topics in intellectual property and law and development. Sathyarajan specialises in international law and policy, with a focus on trade, intellectual property and environmental governance.