Why some researchers oppose unrestricted sharing of coronavirus genome data
Global-south scientists say that an open-access movement led by wealthy nations deprives them of credit and undermines their efforts.
“I was up all last night,” says Nnaemeka Ndodo, a molecular bioengineer at the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (CDC) in Abuja. He sequences coronavirus genomes during the day, and then analyses and uploads the results to an online database at night, working tirelessly alongside his colleagues. “We don’t know Saturday, we don’t know Sunday,” he says.
Researchers around the world are racing to spot variants of the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 so that they can determine whether the mutated viruses will evade vaccines or make COVID-19 deadlier. Like many scientists, Ndodo shares SARS-CoV-2 genome sequences in a popular data repository, GISAID, that requires users to sign in and to credit those whose data they analyse.
But a growing faction of scientists, mostly from wealthy nations, argues that sequences should be shared on databases with no gatekeeping at all. They say this would allow huge analyses combining hundreds of thousands of genomes from different databases to flow seamlessly, and therefore deliver results more rapidly.
The debate has caught the attention of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) — which runs its own genome repository, called GenBank — and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has considered encouraging grantees to share on sites without such strong protections, Nature has learnt.