3. Sharing in pandemic times
Amid escalating geopolitical tensions and efforts to trace the origin of the novel coronavirus, experts say an international legal framework is needed for sharing biological samples and genetic data during pandemics.
The big picture: This pandemic is exposing legal gaps for sharing virus samples and sequencing data that could hinder responses to international health emergencies, according to a new paper in the journal Science.
Background: China published the SARS-CoV-2 genetic sequence on a public database in January and researchers around the world immediately began developing diagnostic tests for the virus and used the sequence to create an infectious clone.
Scientists interviewed by Axios say there is less need now for early samples of the virus to develop vaccines and treatments as it has spread itself around the world.
- But it could help to understand the virus' origins and, they say, sharing of genetic information and samples is key to understanding what other viruses are out there and for responding to future outbreaks.
Where it stands: A patchwork of legal frameworks, binding and nonbinding, pertaining to some types of viruses and information but not others means access to valuable data isn't a guarantee and depends on scientific collaboration in an increasingly politicized world.
- The World Health Organization's International Health Regulations currently require members to share “public health information” related to potential international outbreaks but that doesn't include physical samples or genetic sequencing data.
- The Pandemic Influenza Preparedness (PIP) framework outlines nonbinding access among WHO member states, industry and others to physical samples of influenza viruses with human pandemic potential.
- Existing UN protocols, set up to protect biodiversity, give countries the ability to determine who gets access to genetic resources within their borders and how any associated benefits of those resources are shared.
What to watch: In the future, genomic sequencing data may not be as readily shared, says Lawrence Gostin, an author of the paper and a professor of law at Georgetown University.
- He warns that researchers that use genetic data to synthesize a virus could sidestep rules that obligate the benefits of research to be shared and, in turn, make others hesitate to share genomic data. During a pandemic, that could be "catastrophic," he and his colleagues write.
- They propose expanding either PIP to cover other viruses and genetic sequencing data or the WHO's International Health Regulations to include sharing pathogen samples and genome sequencing data during potential international outbreaks.
Yes, but: There are barriers rooted in the divide and distrust between countries based on past experience of governments, companies and researchers cutting out collaborators in countries providing resources.
The bottom line: "If we want to survive the next pandemics, we need open scientific sharing and to find an international mechanism that allows for that," Gostin tells Axios.
Read the full story.