The "Making Sense of Science" podcast features interviews with leading medical and scientific experts about the latest developments and the big ethical and societal questions they raise. This monthly podcast is hosted by journalist Kira Peikoff, founding editor of the award-winning science outlet Leaps.org.
Hear the 30-second trailer:
Listen to the whole episode:
"Vaccine passports" are a system that requires proof of a COVID-19 vaccination as a condition of engaging in activities that pose a risk of transmitted SARS-CoV-2. Digital Health Passes (DHPs) are typically a smartphone application with a code that verifies whether someone has been vaccinated.
Vaccine passports could very much be in our future. Many businesses are implementing or planning to require proof of vaccination as a condition of returning to the workplace. Colleges and universities have announced vaccine requirements for students, staff, and faculty. It may not be long before the private sector requires a vaccination card or image to attend an entertainment or sporting event, to travel, or even to dine or shop indoors, at least in some venues.
But it's unlikely the federal government or the states will launch DHPs, at least not in the near-term. President Biden announced the White House has no intention of requiring proof of vaccination. While no state has mandated DHPs, New York is piloting its Excelsior Pass on a voluntary basis, partnering with IBM. Other nations are not so hesitant. Israel's "Green Pass" has gotten the nation back to normal in record time. And various countries and regions are planning DHPs, including the European Union and the United Kingdom. Foreign airlines are likely to require proof of vaccination as a condition of flying internationally.
DHPs could emerge as a way to get us back to normal more quickly, but are they ethical? Let's start with the law. The US Equal Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has specifically said that employers have the legal right to require proof of vaccination as a condition of returning to work. Colleges and universities already require several vaccines for students living in dorms. Hospitals and nursing homes often mandate influenza vaccinations. And, of course, all states require childhood vaccinations for school attendance. Vaccine passports are lawful but are they ethical? The short answer is "yes" but only if we ensure no one is left behind.
Vaccine passports "don't force anyone to be vaccinated against his or her will. They simply say to individuals that if you choose not to be vaccinated, you can't work or recreate in public spaces that risk transmission of the virus."
Why are vaccine passports ethical? Vaccines are a miracle of modern science, but they have become a political symbol, and a significant part of the population doesn't want to get a jab. The rare cases of blood clots associated with the Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca vaccines have only created more distrust.
Most opposition to vaccine passports hinges on the claim that they infringe personal autonomy and liberty. But this argument misses the point. Of course, every competent adult has the right to make decisions that affect his or her own health and safety. But no one has a right to infringe on the rights of others, such as by exposing them to a potentially serious or deadly infectious disease. An individual can't claim the right to attend a crowded event mask-less and unvaccinated. This was once accepted across the political spectrum. Conservative economists called it an "externality," that is a person has no right to harm others. The U.S. has lost the tradition of the common good. We have become so focused on our own individual rights that we forget about our ethical obligations to our neighbors and to our community.
In fact, DHPs actually don't force anyone to be vaccinated against his or her will. They simply say to individuals that if you choose not to be vaccinated, you can't work or recreate in public spaces that risk transmission of the virus.
DHPs also don't infringe on privacy. Again, everyone has the choice whether to show proof of vaccination. It isn't required. Moreover, DHPs may actually protect privacy because all they do is show whether or not you have been vaccinated. They don't disclose any other personal medical information. All of us actually have already had to show proof of vaccination as a condition of going to school. Thus, DHPs are well established in the United States.
But there is one ethical argument against DHPs that I find to be powerful, and that is equity. If we require proof of vaccination while doses are scarce, we will give the already privileged even more privilege. And that would be unconscionable. Thus, DHPs should not be implemented until everyone who wants a vaccine is able to get a vaccine. Equity isn't a side issue. It needs to be front and center.
As of today, all adults in the U.S. are eligible to get vaccinated, and President Biden has pledged that by the end of May there will be enough doses to vaccinate the entire U.S. population. It is a realistic promise. Once vaccines become plentiful, everyone should get their shot. All Food and Drug Administration authorized vaccines are highly safe and effective, even the Johnson & Johnson vaccine that the FDA has just put on pause.
Businesses have an economic incentive to require proof of vaccination. Very few of us would feel comfortable returning to our jobs, shops, theaters, or restaurants unless we feel safe. Businesses understand the duty to create safer places for work, recreation, and commerce.
One question has dominated national conversation since the pandemic began. "When will we get back to normal?" There is a deep human yearning to hug family and friends, see our work colleagues, recreate, and be entertained. One day we will have defeated this wily virus and get back to normal. But vaccine passports can help us get back to the things we love faster and more safely. As long as we don't leave anyone behind, using this miracle of modern science to make our lives better is both lawful and ethical.
Editor's Note: This op/ed is part of a "Big Question" series on the ethics of vaccine passports. Read the flip-side argument here.
Genomics has begun its golden age. Just 20 years ago, sequencing a single genome cost nearly $3 billion and took over a decade. Today, the same feat can be achieved for a few hundred dollars and the better part of a day . Suddenly, the prospect of sequencing not just individuals, but whole populations, has become feasible.
The genetic differences between humans may seem meager, only around 0.1 percent of the genome on average, but this variation can have profound effects on an individual's risk of disease, responsiveness to medication, and even the dosage level that would work best.
Already, initiatives like the U.K.'s 100,000 Genomes Project - now expanding to 1 million genomes - and other similarly massive sequencing projects in Iceland and the U.S., have begun collecting population-scale data in order to capture and study this variation.
The resulting data sets are immensely valuable to researchers and drug developers working to design new 'precision' medicines and diagnostics, and to gain insights that may benefit patients. Yet, because the majority of this data comes from developed countries with well-established scientific and medical infrastructure, the data collected so far is heavily biased towards Western populations with largely European ancestry.
This presents a startling and fast-emerging problem: groups that are under-represented in these datasets are likely to benefit less from the new wave of therapeutics, diagnostics, and insights, simply because they were tailored for the genetic profiles of people with European ancestry.
We may indeed be approaching a golden age of genomics-enabled precision medicine. But if the data bias persists then there is a risk, as with most golden ages throughout history, that the benefits will not be equally accessible to all, and existing inequalities will only be exacerbated.
To remedy the situation, a number of initiatives have sprung up to sequence genomes of under-represented groups, adding them to the datasets and ensuring that they too will benefit from the rapidly unfolding genomic revolution.
Global Gene Corp
The idea behind Global Gene Corp was born eight years ago in Harvard when Sumit Jamuar, co-founder and CEO, met up with his two other co-founders, both experienced geneticists, for a coffee.
"They were discussing the limitless applications of understanding your genetic code," said Jamuar, a business executive from New Delhi.
"And so, being a technology enthusiast type, I was excited and I turned to them and said hey, this is incredible! Could you sequence me and give me some insights? And they actually just turned around and said no, because it's not going to be useful for you - there's not enough reference for what a good Sumit looks like."
What started as a curiosity-driven conversation on the power of genomics ended with a commitment to tackle one of the field's biggest roadblocks - its lack of global representation.
Jamuar set out to begin with India, which has about 20 percent of the world's population, including over 4000 different ethnicities, but contributes less than 2 percent of genomic data, he told Leaps.org.
Eight years later, Global Gene Corp's sequencing initiative is well underway, and is the largest in the history of the Indian subcontinent. The program is being carried out in collaboration with biotech giant Regeneron, with support from the Indian government, local communities, and the Indian healthcare ecosystem. In August 2020, Global Gene Corp's work was recognized through the $1 million 2020 Roddenberry award for organizations that advance the vision of 'Star Trek' creator Gene Roddenberry to better humanity.
This problem has already begun to manifest itself in, for example, much higher levels of genetic misdiagnosis among non-Europeans tested for their risk of certain diseases, such as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy - an inherited disease of the heart muscle.
Global Gene Corp also focuses on developing and implementing AI and machine learning tools to make sense of the deluge of genomic data. These tools are increasingly used by both industry and academia to guide future research by identifying particularly promising or clinically interesting genetic variants. But if the underlying data is skewed European, then the effectiveness of the computational analysis - along with the future advances and avenues of research that emerge from it - will be skewed towards Europeans too.
This problem has already begun to manifest itself in, for example, much higher levels of genetic misdiagnosis among non-Europeans tested for their risk of certain diseases, such as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy - an inherited disease of the heart muscle. Most of the genetic variants used in these tests were identified as being causal for the disease from studies of European genomes. However, many of these variants differ both in their distribution and clinical significance across populations, leading to many patients of non-European ancestry receiving false-positive test results - as their benign genetic variants were misclassified as pathogenic. Had even a small number of genomes from other ethnicities been included in the initial studies, these misdiagnoses could have been avoided.
"Unless we have a data set which is unbiased and representative, we're never going to achieve the success that we want," Jamuar says.
"When Siri was first launched, she could hardly recognize an accent which was not of a certain type, so if I was trying to speak to Siri, I would have to repeat myself multiple times and try to mimic an accent which wasn't my accent so that she could understand it.
"But over time the voice recognition technology improved tremendously because the training data was expanded to include people of very diverse backgrounds and their accents, so the algorithms were trained to be able to pick that up and it dramatically improved the technology. That's the way we have to think about it - without that good-quality diverse data, we will never be able to achieve the full potential of the computational tools."
While mapping India's rich genetic diversity has been the organization's primary focus so far, they plan, in time, to expand their work to other under-represented groups in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America.
"As other like-minded people and partners join the mission, it just accelerates the achievement of what we have set out to do, which is to map out and organize the world's genomic diversity so that we can enable high-quality life and longevity benefits for everyone, everywhere," Jamuar says.
Empowering African Genomics
Africa is the birthplace of our species, and today still retains an inordinate amount of total human genetic diversity. Groups that left Africa and went on to populate the rest of the world, some 50 to 100,000 years ago, were likely small in number and only took a fraction of the total genetic diversity with them. This ancient bottleneck means that no other group in the world can match the level of genetic diversity seen in modern African populations.
Despite Africa's central importance in understanding the history and extent of human genetic diversity, the genomics of African populations remains wildly understudied. Addressing this disparity has become a central focus of the H3Africa Consortium, an initiative formally launched in 2012 with support from the African Academy of Sciences, the U.S. National Institutes of Health, and the UK's Wellcome Trust. Today, H3Africa supports over 50 projects across the continent, on an array of different research areas in genetics relevant to the health and heredity of Africans.
"Africa is the cradle of Humankind. So what that really means is that the populations that are currently living in Africa are among some of the oldest populations on the globe, and we know that the longer populations have had to go through evolutionary phases, the more variation there is in the genomes of people who live presently," says Zane Lombard, a principal investigator at H3Africa and Associate Professor of Human Genetics at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa.
"So for that reason, African populations carry a huge amount of genetic variation and diversity, which is pretty much uncaptured. There's still a lot to learn as far as novel variation is concerned by looking at and studying African genomes."
A recent landmark H3Africa study, led by Lombard and published in Nature in October, sequenced the genomes of over 400 African individuals from 50 ethno-linguistic groups - many of which had never been sampled before.
Despite the relatively modest number of individuals sequenced in the study, over three million previously undescribed genetic variants were found, and complex patterns of ancestral migration were uncovered.
"In some of these ethno-linguistic groups they don't have a word for DNA, so we've had to really think about how to make sure that we communicate the purposes of different studies to participants so that you have true informed consent," says Lombard.
"The objective," she explained, "was to try and fill some of the gaps for many of these populations for which we didn't have any whole genome sequences or any genetic variation data...because if we're thinking about the future of precision medicine, if the patient is a member of a specific group where we don't know a lot about the genomic variation that exists in that group, it makes it really difficult to start thinking about clinical interpretation of their data."
From H3Africa's conception, the consortium's goal has not only been to better represent Africa's staggering genetic diversity in genomic data sets, but also to build Africa's domestic genomics capabilities and empower a new generation of African researchers. By doing so, the hope is that Africans will be able to set their own genomics agenda, and leapfrog to new and better ways of doing the work.
"The training that has happened on the continent and the number of new scientists, new students, and fellows that have come through the process and are now enabled to start their own research groups, to grow their own research in their countries, to be a spokesperson for genomics research in their countries, and to build that political will to do these larger types of sequencing initiatives - that is really a significant outcome from H3Africa as well. Over and above all the science that's coming out," Lombard says.
"What has been created through H3Africa is just this locus of researchers and scientists and bioethicists who have the same goal at heart - to work towards adjusting the data bias and making sure that all global populations are represented in genomics."