A critical genetic database is under fire

IAND THE Over the past decade, the rapid sharing of genetic sequences, particularly of pathogens, has begun to play a central role in global public health. Such sharing is crucial for assessing the risk of new viruses, developing medical countermeasures such as vaccines, and planning an international response. Scientists, laboratories and governments regularly upload newly sequenced pathogens to global repositories. The largest and most important of these databases is GISAID.

For foreigners, the name GISAID means little. But within science, this small nonprofit is a powerful force in storing and sharing genetic data about pathogens. The Global Avian Influenza Data Sharing Initiative was launched in 2006 by a group of scientists. During the covid-19 pandemic, it has become essential to share coronavirus footage. Donors have since showered it with millions of dollars. GISAIDThe data determines how well the world is able to track emerging strains of SARS-CoV-2 and influenza, and helps identify those of particular concern. But in recent weeks, serious concerns have emerged over the management of the organization and its lack of transparency.

On March 21, it emerged that GISAID had revoked the access of a group of international scientists who were working on Chinese covid data. The argument centered on a dispute over whether they had breached the rules governing the use of the database. Their access has since been restored. But the row inspired other scientists to say they also had access to GISAID suppressed, hampering public health work.

Their concerns are not new. In March 2021 an article in the journal Science highlighted the scientists’ concerns about access restrictions to the same database and their inability to get explanations for what happened. But now GISAIDDonors began to worry about its functioning.

GISAID received millions of dollars from the Rockefeller Foundation, a philanthropic organization; the World Health Organization (WHO); and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, a foundation that funds vaccine research. He also received donations from pharmaceutical companies. During the first year of the pandemic, the WHO gave GISAID $1.7 million; pharmaceutical companies donated an additional $1.7 million. Donations continued to flow, allowing the platform to grow. As of April 2021, 1 million coronavirus sequences have been published on GISAID. In June 2021, the Rockefeller Foundation gave him an additional $5.1 million.

Some donors are concerned about a lack of transparency in the governance of GISAID, in particular on the identity of the members of its board of directors. A funding body that asked to remain anonymous describes GISAID as “opaque”. Many, however, understand that the organization is run primarily by one man: Peter Bogner, its founder. Mr. Bogner, a former television studio executive, is believed to be based in California. (GISAID also has an administrative base in Germany run by a charity, Freunde von GISAID. eV, or “Friends of GISAID“.)

Nancy Akite Opiokello, Grants Manager for GISAIDsaid in an email:GISAID has received (and continues to receive) funds from sophisticated granting agencies that independently perform rigorous due diligence, including equivalency determinations required for public charities. It is axiomatic that problems arose during these due diligence procedures, GISAID would not have received any of its current (or historical) grants.

But another funder, who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the topic, said The Economist that his investment was made at the start of the pandemic “in crisis mode”. Another said he had provided bridge financing because he appreciated GISAIDunique role and hopes that the organization will come back with proposals on governance. Maria Van Kerkhove, covid-19 technical manager at WHOsaid GISAID must answer the questions put to him.

The governance issues surrounding GISAID snowball. In recent days, it emerged that the organization had been turned down for long-term funding by pharmaceutical companies through the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA), for governance reasons.

In a statement on March 30 Thomas Cueni, the boss of IFPMAsaid he was “critical” to GISAID to provide transparent governance as well as a clear explanation of how it will adjudicate complaints from scientists. GISAID disputed that account, saying it withheld industry money to “maintain the trust of data contributors.” But discussions between vaccine companies and GISAID have been ongoing since November 2020, after the organization issued a request for financial support from the private sector.

Bruce Gellin, head of global public health strategy at the Rockefeller Foundation, says his organization believes a global pandemic early warning system is only possible with “sufficient accountability, good governance and transparency as listed in WHOguiding principles for sharing pathogen genome data”. These guidelines specify that the composition of boards and committees, as well as their terms of reference, must be made public.

It is not clear when GISAID will reform its operation. Angie Hinrichs, a researcher at the University of California, Santa Cruz, is among the scientists who have had access to GISAID restricted genomic sequences without explanation. Her limited access meant she spent 750 hours uploading footage in small chunks during the pandemic, she says.

Bede Constantinides, principal investigator at the University of Oxford, says that during covid he has been working on a system that automates the reporting of lab sequence data. When he asked GISAID whether his system could be made to communicate with his – so that data from the UK National Health Service could be shared automatically – he received no response and his account was blocked from uploading to GISAID. GISAID is now “almost useless” to him, he says, adding that his emails go unanswered. Many scientists say they fear making their complaints public in case they lose access to the database.

Mr. Bogner was not available for an interview. But GISAIDThe website says the organization’s mission is to promote the rapid sharing of data of all influenza viruses and the coronavirus that causes covid-19. It also states that it “actively promotes the development of new research tools for analyzing influenza data by helping developers make it easier to integrate or connect their tools to analyze GISAID data”.

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