Scientists oppose COVID-19 genome data being open
As the COVID-19 causing virus continues to surge and mutate, researchers around the world are working to identify and study the mutations of the virus. Most researchers use GISAID, a popular repository, to store SARS-CoV-2 genome sequences. To access these sequences, researchers need to sign in to GISAID; and if they analyze any data, they are required to acknowledge the researchers to whom the data belongs.
At the start of the month, a group of around 800 researchers posted an open letter advocating the removal of barriers to accessing SARS-CoV-2 sequence data and making it open in order to “beat COVID-19 and to prepare for future outbreaks.” While these researchers – who primarily hail from wealthy countries – consider their demand a move toward open science, some researchers from under-resourced countries have raised an objection.
Researchers from low income countries fear “inequitable data use” if GISAID complies with the open data policy. The platform requires users to acknowledge the person who has provided the data and encourages collaboration. Without this, some researchers feel they may fall prey to scooping. Moreover, other researchers, particularly computer scientists, may use the data to conduct big data analyses. This may land them publications in reputed journals and provide a boost to their career based on someone else’s data.
However, some researchers disagree with the opposition to making SARS-CoV-2 genome data freely accessible. “Sequencing is not for enriching the career of individual researchers, but for fighting a pandemic,” says Rolf Apweiler who is co-director of the group of researchers that are pushing for open data through the letter. He further states that low-income and middle-income countries are contributing much less data, so this argument is not focal.
While the number of COVID-19 cases are dropping in Europe and the U.S., low and middle income countries are likely to fight life-threatening mutations of the virus. To study these, genome sequences would be essential. Therefore, if GISAID makes data open, researchers from these countries may hesitate to share their data. “If one is not careful, one will go back to the model of depositing data only after publication, which can take months or even years,” warns Glenda Gray, president of the South African Medical Research Council in Cape Town.
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