Will coronavirus kickstart blockchain genomics?

Ironically, the most dangerous aspect of COVID-19 is that it doesn’t make most people sick.

Recent evidence from Iceland indicates that 1 out of every 2 carriers falls into the bucket of ‘asymptomatic’, meaning that — in most of these cases — they don’t even know that they have it. Researchers are unsure as to the extent to which subtle mutations in the virus itself cause it to be more or less deadly to some populations, or if underlying genetics influence mortality, or some combination of both.

In the meantime, hundreds of thousands have been infected, supply chains have been disrupted, and accurate and up-to-date information is not always easy to come by.

In the months, and years to come, we will learn a great deal about how to be better prepared, and we may be able to mitigate or avoid altogether some of the worst effects of future pandemics by applying blockchain technology.

There are a variety of ways that blockchain-based technologies could help in the fields of genomic sequencing, data privacy, medical supply chain, distributed computing, contact-tracing, and payment issuance. Some of these technologies are even working in infancy as we speak: specifically, we take a look at the world of blockchain genomics and show the incredible impact it could make when we face future pandemics.

Owning and selling your genetic data

One of the key aspects in understanding how the virus spreads across populations will be understanding how it operates on an individual basis. There are already initiatives like the 1000 Genomes Project that have sought to gain a clearer understanding of the genomics of disease through collecting and analysing the genomes of 2,504 people from 26 populations across Africa, East and South Asia, Europe and the Americas.

On a more consumer level, companies like Veritas can sequence your entire genome for around $600 USD, and a million or so people have had that done, while companies like 23 and me offer genotyping (which gets you about 1% of the information gathered in a genomic sequence) — the latter has over 17 million kit users. The cost of full genomic sequencing getting to a level where most everyone would have it done (maybe about $50 USD) is not far away.

So far, having your genetic sequence in your back pocket hasn’t proven to be overly valuable to people aside from a-ha moments re: inferences of your ancestry (so far, the consensus on the overall value of knowing you might get Huntington’s disease is out to jury). That could very well be subject to change and the recent coronavirus pandemic may be a powerful confirmation to the idea of the basic human right to be in sole possession of your genome.

With nearly three quarters of immune traits influenced by our genes, according to a recent study (2017) by Professor Tim Spector, Director of the Twins UK Registry at King’s College London, having a sense of our susceptibility to a virus before we get it would be incredibly valuable information indeed. Professor Spector further, and presciently given the current state of affairs with coronavirus, added:

“Our results surprisingly showed how most immune responses are genetic, very personalised and finely tuned. What this means is that we are likely to respond in a very individualised way to an infection such as a virus — or an allergen such as a house dust mite causing asthma. This may have big implications for future personalized therapy.”

There are questions that instantly crop up with masses of people having access to their genomes:

How is that data secured? Do we just save it to a Dropbox account? How is our genomic data being used? Will we upload it for interpretation? Can it be copied? Does the state have access to it?

Could people monetize this data? Would people buy it, rent it? How would they have access, and who would have access? Once these third parties had access to our data, how could we ensure it was anonymous? Are some people’s genetic data more or less valuable to certain third parties and why? Could this data be gamed at all? How do third parties and individuals ensure or verify that what they have is authentic?

The list of potential consequences goes on…

But, how could possession of your genome be anonymous, personalized, secure, and of some transactional value all at once?

Ofer Lidsky, CEO of DNATix thinks the solution may very well be Blockchain. He imagines a world where “each person owns his or her own DNA. If it’s DNA connected to their wallet and it’s encrypted, only they have access to their DNA. So, if he or she wants to share it with a researcher they have to decide to participate in research and they will get rewarded in tokens for that.”

The importance of individuals directly owning and controlling their genetic data in a secure and anonymous way cannot be overstated: your genome is, quite literally, you in code form.

Right now, people are trading companies like 23 and Me their genomic information for a couple hundred dollars, but these companies can make even more from selling your anonymized info to researchers. With the price of full genomic sequencing soon getting to a point that’s affordable for everyone, there should be decentralized alternatives in the market that can potentially empower the individual maintain sole custodianship of their genomes.

For the common person, getting your genome sequenced for $100 and then uploading that sequence to a database to effectively rent out to researchers over your lifetime for 50X the cost of your sequencing, or $5,000.00 — which is the estimation of the lifetime value of your genome from a similarly-placed blockchain genomics startup, Nebula Genomics — may prove to be exactly the type of personal value needed to drive mass adoption while safeguarding the privacy of the data itself.

In the shadow of coronavirus, it goes without saying there’s a much broader benefit to all of this too: saving lives.

Under such a globalized, decentralized database of genomes as Nebula Genomics or DNATix envisions, both healthy, recovered, and deceased (under custodianship of a relative, we assume) individuals could opt in to share their genomes with the WHO and other bodies for a small fee (or, hopefully, voluntarily) to help bolster research into possible treatments. Arguably, this would accelerate and validate the basic level to which information could be known about how the virus interacts with certain physiologies.

Moreover, in the development of vaccines, such a system would allow researchers both breadth and specificity in understanding the susceptibility, or risk profiles, of certain individuals in the population ahead of time, either for vaccine treatment, or exposure to a coronavirus.

Taking this even one step further, it would allow global health coordination — instead of the asynchrony of national systems — such that we have better modeling and response on global scales if catastrophe should hit us again.

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