EYESHENZHEN  /   Opinion

The silver bullet and potential moral conflicts

Writer: Liu Jianwei  |  Editor: Jane Chen  |  From: Shenzhen Daily  |  Updated: 2022-04-18

While the ongoing global fight against COVID-19 is still far out of the woods, there is no doubt that genomic sequencing has been playing a prominent role ever since the beginning of this pandemic.

Shortly after SARS-CoV-2 — the virus that causes COVID-19 — was detected, scientists in China released the genomic sequence of this virus to the world, which made it possible for rapid development of diagnostic tests and other tools for the response to this worldwide disease. 

Nowadays genomic sequencing programs in many countries help track the spreading of COVID-19 and pinpoint its myriads of variants. More importantly, further research into the genomic sequencing of SARS-CoV-2 resulted in the successful development of mRNA vaccines. As a game-changer, global rollout of vaccines against COVID-19, using genomic and other technologies, bent the curve of the spreading spiral and saved the lives of millions.

Previous research of virus genomics had already contributed to endeavors against other contagious diseases, including the Influenza A (H1N1) pandemic in 2009, several outbreaks of the MERS epidemics since 2012, and the 2013-2016 Ebola virus disease epidemic. COVID-19 pushed the scientific significance of genomic sequencing into the spotlight.

The application of genomic sequencing to human healthcare goes far beyond the identification of viruses.

Genomic sequencing can help scientists understand genes that are prone to certain diseases. Preventive programs can be designed to screen or delay the onset of these diseases, which can in turn improve the health and wellbeing of millions and save billions in healthcare resources. Whole genome sequencing can shed light on the diagnosis of some diseases that have been perplexing for researchers using traditional methods.

Pharmaceutical researchers can use genomic sequencing to single out patients with particular genes who may have negative reactions to certain drugs and explore alternative treatment approaches, instead of prescribing drugs that may not work or even lead to unwanted consequences. The objective would be to give the right medication to the right patients at the right dose.

Since genomic sequencing can reveal so much about a person's health, some countries, especially those with small populations, have undertaken the task of scaling up genomic sequencing in their healthcare systems. For instance, scientists in Estonia already have a biobank of more than 200,000 individuals, out of the country's total population of 1.3 million. Nordic countries like Iceland, Finland and Denmark are also ambitious pioneers in building up their genomic infrastructure.

The private nature of a person's genomics would probably raise a lot of moral questions down the road. Would employers require applicants' genomic sequencing information and reject some on the basis of genomics? Would healthcare insurers abuse acquired genomic data to discriminate against certain people by charging unfair insurance premiums? Would genomics be a factor in a country's immigration policies?

On the personal level, would genomic sequencing play an important role before a couple venture into marriage? Would the consideration of genomics be given before people giving birth to children? With expanded genomic sequencing practices, would that lead to unintended eugenics? 

Would the acquisition of more revealing genomic information about their own mortality actually give people more happiness or anxiety in life?

Moral issues constantly arise with the development of society, economy, technology and science. Genomic sequencing will greatly improve the understanding of our physical selves, and we can trust our mental competence to solve the moral challenges therein.

(The author is an independent financial investor.)