NEW YORK – Ancestry this week asked its users to contribute their genotyping and health data to genetic research efforts focused on SARS-CoV-2. The Lehi, Utah-based online genealogy firm launched a research project to uncover genetic factors underpinning people's response to the virus. Data collected from volunteers will be used in a genome-wide association study to better understand COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, the company said.
CSO Catherine Ball said Ancestry decided to throw its weight behind the global research effort given the scope of the coronavirus pandemic, which according to the World Health Organization has resulted in about 2.7 million confirmed cases and more than 180,000 deaths so far since the end of last year.
"We are all in it together," said Ball. She noted that Ancestry has genotyped about 16 million people since it launched its AncestryDNA genetic genealogy service in 2012, and therefore has a vehicle to not only support research efforts but to give users another way to contribute to those activities.
"We are optimistic that our highly engaged community will help accelerate research at a time when speed is so very important," Ball wrote in an email.
Ancestry isn't the only consumer genomics firm as of late to see value in reaching out to its users to support research into COVID-19. Earlier this month, its competitor 23andMe of Mountain View, California, launched its own study that is arguably similar in scope. 23andMe's study is specifically focused on the severity of COVID-19 symptoms and will collect data from participants via surveys that will be colated with their array genotyping data. Both Ancestry and 23andMe use Illumina genotyping arrays in their services.
When asked about its own intentions, Ball said that Ancestry launched the COVID-19 study to gain a deeper understanding of how different people respond to the novel coronavirus. "We hope that, through this knowledge, the pace of research into new preventive and therapeutic treatments for COVID-19 can be accelerated," she said. Ball added that Ancestry is making research data from the study available at no cost to qualified researchers in organizations. While the company has not named any partners, it said they may include non-governmental organizations, public health agencies, and academic and pharmaceutical research groups.
"Qualified researchers who are working toward developing preventive and therapeutic treatments against COVID-19 will have access to the research," said Ball. She noted that an internal panel with privacy, regulatory, and scientific expertise will select researchers from well-established, reputable organizations that adhere to research regulations and protect the privacy of research participants.
The study is being coordinated via Ancestry's Personal Discoveries Project, a feature the company rolled out in 2018. It allows users to complete surveys to help Ancestry develop new features, as well as to take part in scientific research with expressed consent. As such, the company has already accrued experience in running such studies.
In the case of the COVID-19 study, Ancestry asks volunteers to fill out a survey to determine if the participant has been exposed to the virus or has tested positive. The survey also contains questions about symptoms, medications, health-related issues that might influence the severity of symptoms, and age and demographic factors that might have a similar impact. Participants have to be at least 18 years old and reside in the US.
"Ancestry routinely facilitates studies using our Personal Discoveries Project," said Ball, noting the company is "proactively engaging our members who've consented to participate in research." All data obtained via Ancestry is de-identified, she added, so that no personal information will be shared with partner researchers.
Survey and DNA data will also be submitted to the European Genome-Phenome Archive, or EGA, Ball added, and made available to qualified external researchers developing both tests and treatments for the virus. The EGA, hosted by the European Bioinformatics Institute, is a data archive service that allows research projects to share phenotypic and genomic information.
While helping to resolve the current global health crisis is the priority for Ancestry, Ball noted that the experience gained from its COVID-19 study could inform future efforts.
"During this unprecedented challenge, our team is rallying around launching this study and engaging our members who've consented to participate in research," said Ball. "We will always explore opportunities to advance public health and will continue to evaluate every opportunity through the vantage point of whether it is contributing to the wellbeing of our members," she said.