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Georgetown Researchers Call for Improved Pathogen Genomic Data Sharing

NEW YORK — Researchers at Georgetown University have outlined strategies for improving the sharing of pathogen genomic sequencing data in order to ensure better preparedness for future pandemics.

In a commentary published in the New England Journal of Medicine on Wednesday, they noted that in past outbreaks, sharing of pathogen genome sequences was often delayed.

Among the reasons they cited were scientists' plans to publish their data, hesitance to share credit, and government concerns.

According to the authors, from the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at the Georgetown University Law Center and the Department of Health Management and Policy at Georgetown University Medical Center, there is no global system for sharing such data at the moment.

"Various repositories and sites where data are shared operate on different principles and under terms shaped by their hosts' competing incentives," they wrote.

The problem was highlighted during the COVID-19 pandemic, they added, when the SARS-CoV-2 genome became available on multiple sites and repositories such as, Global Initiative on Sharing All Influenza Data (GISAID), and GenBank, which is part of the International Nucleotide Sequence Database Collaboration (INSDC).

These repositories, however, had different terms for sharing and subsequent use of the data, acknowledgment of sources, and incorporation of the data into downstream applications, diagnostics, therapies, or vaccines, which became a problem, according to the authors.

"Multiplicity of repositories and competing and conflicting terms of use have led to suboptimal tools for developing vaccines, insufficient local or regional representation in research and development work, diagnostics that were not rapidly tailored or tested against original or new variants of pathogens, and skewed and nonrepresentative epidemiology in genomic surveillance," they wrote.

One of the solutions they suggested is that repositories could enter into formal public-health-use agreements with one another. "Such an agreement between INSDC repositories and GISAID, for example, would make it easier for signatory institutions' staff to gain permission to access and aggregate data, conduct analyses, and report variants," they wrote. In exchange, signatory institutions would affirm that their staff would not transfer others' repository records without permission.

They also proposed that the World Health Organization could create and maintain a repository of agreements between database owners and lead coordination and development of rules for standardization, interoperability, and sharing.

"Future preparedness depends on interoperability among data systems, more effective data use, international harmonization and collaboration, and clear and consistent rules governing attribution and use," they wrote.

Meanwhile, they also recommended amendments to a World Health Assembly convention draft on pandemic prevention, preparedness, and response. The current draft only requires a government that possesses pathogen genomic data to upload them to one or more "publicly accessible databases" of its choice. "As we have argued, the core problem is not what governments possess but what researchers possess and the terms under which they share," they wrote.

They concluded that future preparedness would depend on interoperability among data systems, more effective data use, international harmonization and collaboration, and clear and consistent rules governing attribution and use.