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Flaws exposed in genomic data sharing during pandemic

UK government-commissioned report calls for overhaul of systems that produced “mixed results”

Genomic data was shared too late, or in too partial a form, during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a report commissioned by the UK government.

The pandemic was a “significant stress test” of global genomic sequencing capacity and of the open sharing of such data, as scientists sought to develop treatments and vaccines for the virus.

However, these efforts yielded “mixed results”, according to the report on viral genomic data sharing during Covid-19, which was commissioned by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

“While sequencing data was shared more quickly and widely than ever before, in many cases it was shared too late, in too partial a form or with insufficient metadata to contribute effectively to the emergency response,” the report by the specialist consultancy firm Research Consulting found.

“Variations in data quality, formats, associated metadata standards, and arrangements for access and re-use continue to present barriers to the effective sharing and use of genomic data at scale.”

The report’s authors set out a number of recommendations for policymakers, including the need for long-term investment in international standards and infrastructures for data sharing in genomics.

“Critical data infrastructures need open and transparent governance mechanisms, sustainable funding, and common standards that enable interoperability and scalability,” it says. “These must be accompanied by skilled individuals who are able to create, analyse, share and re-use relevant data.”

There is also a “compelling need” to reform incentives that reward the sharing of reusable, high-quality data and code alongside accompanying metadata, the report suggests.

Established norms

The report also identifies an opportunity to reassess established norms for data-sharing, whose deficiencies, it says, were in some cases “sharply exposed” during the pandemic.

“Ongoing efforts to reform academic incentives must be accompanied by corresponding work to incentivise sharing by public health actors, with strengthened expectations for data-sharing by all parties in an emergency context,” it says.

Meanwhile, public policymakers, research and development funders, institutions in academic and public health, and publishers “all have a role to play in setting expectations for open and rapid sharing of all relevant data and information in these circumstances”.

In addition, the report calls for a more “global and inclusive approach” to data sharing.

The sharing of data by different countries and regions, it notes, is “heavily influenced by pre-existing geopolitical considerations and the risk of adverse political and economic consequences”.

“Interventions designed to enhance the availability of relevant data must ensure they identify and tackle the root of the problem,” the report suggests. “In many cases this will be a lack of underlying research capacity and public health infrastructure, or political tensions rather than inadequate uptake of open sharing practices.

“Open international infrastructures must also be cognisant of the needs of a diverse community of users, with standardisation of data and metadata formats accompanied by a flexible approach to access.”