By Divya Venkatesh
In a pandemic, the sharing of pathogen samples – and associated data such as genetic sequences and epidemiological information are critical for effective public health response – both globally and locally. This is particularly important for the development of medical countermeasures, such as vaccines and diagnostics. And as this pandemic has shown, the sharing of these medical countermeasures across the world is as important to fight the spread of disease.
Nominally, the sharing of pathogen samples is governed by the Convention on Biological Diversity (1992), specifically through its supplementary agreement – the Nagoya Protocol which came into effect in 2014. The protocol enumerates an ‘access and benefits sharing’ (ABS) mechanism which seeks to ensure fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the utilization of the shared resources. In this context the assumption is that the developing country who is doing the sharing of pathogens is assured medical countermeasures or capacity building or other agreed ‘benefit’ in return. In practice however most scientists, even in low and middle-income countries (LMICs) do not know or use the protocol when sharing samples with collaborators in high-income countries (HICs).
Most often, it appears that the sharing of samples occurs through informal agreements between research groups. It really depends on how the parties can negotiate the terms and this is complicated by the power-differential that arises from the fact that funding for projects in such collaborations largely come from HICs. As a result, the experience of sharing pathogens is very uneven and unpredictable.
Iruka Okeke, a professor of microbiology in Nigeria, told us in an interview, “We share as much as we are able since open science has the potential to benefit everyone – including us – admittedly some more than others. There is a trade-off associated with developing country science, period.”
Scientists in developed countries can be exploitative, sometimes without realising. In an extensive interview with us, Senjuti Saha, a microbiologist in Bangladesh recounted to us her experiences, which were both positive and negative. In one instance, her group was able to retain ownership of the data and learned to analyse it. In another, however, they were never able to access the sequencing data from their own samples which they had shared with a lab in a HIC.
Okeke says, “In the end, no matter how much postal and helicopter researchers harvest away, it represents but a minutiae of the diversity that needs to be interrogated. Despite centuries of shipping samples from African countries abroad, we know surprisingly little about the epidemiology of infectious diseases in Africa. As we have more biological diversity, the pace and scope of local discovery needs to increase several folds.” In this context, a more accessible ABS mechanism might be a useful tool in harnessing cross South-North collaborations to build capacity for local research and development. However, these mechanisms have failed to keep pace with advancements in science.
One major challenge is genetic sequence data, which is out of the regulatory ambit of current ABS mechanisms. In recent years advances in sequencing technology have meant that the cost of sequencing has plummeted significantly. A complete human genome can be sequenced for about USD 1000 and it would cost even less for pathogens whose genomes are much smaller. While pathogens can be difficult to ship between countries, sequencing data is very easy to share, thanks to many available databases such as Genbank run by the US NCBI (National Centre for Biotechnology Information) and GISAID (Global initiative on sharing all influenza data), a Germany-based non-profit initiative to promote rapid sharing of influenza and SARS-CoV-2 sequence and associated clinical and epidemiological data.
Genome sequencing costs 2020: https://www.genome.gov/about-genomics/fact-sheets/Sequencing-Human-Genome-cost
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