Thought leadership

Public health and climate change: recognising the potential of genomics

By -
Grace Girling

Bringing the benefits of genomic sequencing to the world undoubtedly requires international collaboration and the development of a fair and equitable genomics ecosystem. However, when looking at genomics beyond healthcare, framing its potential in areas of ecology, synthetic biology and agriculture as completely separate to health is a pitfall which may hinder it’s potential.

The twenty-first century poses colossal challenges for global society. The threat of climate change is inescapable; recognising that its effects are a public health issue is crucial in driving governments to shape equitable solutions.

The UK Government’s 2021 Life Sciences Vision sets out its ambition to regain the UK’s status as a Life Sciences superpower. Effectively integrating genomics further into healthcare will play a major role in achieving this aim and much progress has already been made with the completion of the 100,000 Genomes project.

Further, Genomics Beyond Health emphasises that, although much of the knowledge surrounding genomics comes from studying human health and disease, it is not solely a health policy issue and can affect a number of areas, including synthetic biology, agriculture and ecology. Unlocking the power of genomics can provide solutions for many of the issues facing the global population in the twenty-first century; not only those which have been ever-present, such as human disease, but also those which arise from an increasing population and degradation of ecosystems due to anthropogenic activity.

However, the transformative potential of genomics comes with myriad ethical and practical challenges concerning data sharing and privacy. Developing sufficient policy and regulatory systems which ensure fair distribution of benefits globally and are not outpaced by science and technology will be imperative to harnessing this potential.

Public Policy Project’s Bringing the Benefits of Genome Sequencing to the World gathered insights on how international collaboration and open-access data – the cornerstones of genomics – can be achieved by creating a platform for voices with various perspectives, leading with policy, not science. Through this, the lives of global citizens can be improved and resilience against future shocks can be built in. These conversations centred around the use of genomics in healthcare, however the lessons can be transferred to the other areas in which genomics is applied. Such issues to be addressed are: the need for a Global Charter, the development of a public cloud and of data stewardship models, building public trust and engagement, global representation in genomics and frameworks for assessing the economic benefits of genomics.

Global Charter for Genomics

Genomics is an ecosystem which requires a framework setting out a holistic strategy for the benefits. This applies not only to healthcare innovation but also in other sectors. For example, in a global economy, the food system is largely interconnected. The use of genome sequencing in agriculture is critical in ensuring global surveillance of the food system to detect pathogens and prevent future disease outbreaks. To ensure all countries participate in this surveillance, a global charter is necessary, one which equitably distributes the benefits of a resilient a food system, but also protects public health.

Developing a Public Cloud and Data Stewardship

Legal and regulatory considerations around sharing of genomic data must also be addressed. A public cloud and ingrained data stewardship model would be monumental in facilitating the rapid upload and sharing of new data. This would, in turn, enable the monitoring of foodborne pathogens and, importantly, preventing the misuse of such data.

Further, the intersection of public health and environmental degradation is exemplified by the pressure on freshwater resources. Genome sequencing can be used to monitor water quality and detect faecal indicator bacteria and antibiotic resistance genes. Development of portable sequencing technologies may improve monitoring in hard- to- reach and low-income areas, but development of international regulation is essential to manage the risks surrounding the application to environmental and ecological contexts.

Building Public Trust and Engagement

There is already an considerable degree of food insecurity across the globe, with world agricultural output required to increase by approximately 60 per cent by 2050 to cater for an increasing global population., This problem will dramatically worsen without an adequate solution. As such, agricultural productivity needs to increase, and this can be achieved through selective breeding of crops, aided by genomics. This is not a particularly novel application as one of the oldest applications of genomic science is the genetic modification of crops.

However, public opinion on the use of genetically modified organisms s polarised, which may hinder the innovation of genomics in agriculture, for fear of lack of support. Therefore, building public trust and engagement within genomics through comprehensive educational campaigns is essential if it is to be implemented as part of a global solution.

Global Representation in Genomics

Food insecurity is not only a major health issue, but it is also a key driver of poverty and instability, both political and social, in low and middle-income countries, and this has only worsened due to the impact of Covid-19. Through selective breeding, genomics can provide solutions in such a way that caters for an increasing global population whilst mitigating for an already stressed ecosystem. As many low and middle-income countries’ economies rely on the agricultural sector, ensuring that the research accrued in high income countries is not limited to applications within their own jurisdictions is imperative to improving global health through secure food systems.

Conveying the Economic Benefits

The Sciences Vision prides life sciences as one of the largest drivers of growth in the twenty-first century. In low- and middle-income countries, the priorities of the government might not extend to investment in innovative sequencing techniques. As such, the economic benefits from participating must be conveyed effectively. One key example is the threat of zoonotic diseases, which humans are more likely to be exposed to due to habitat destruction, exemplified by the Covid-19 pandemic.

As discussed, genomics has many potential applications in ecology, synthetic biology and agriculture, which have the capacity to mitigate the effects of climate change. These effects are already burdening low and middle-income countries through adverse temperature changes and rising sea levels, for example, and the concomitant effects on their populations, such as famine or displacement. Therefore, recognising both the direct and indirect benefits of investment, through the lens of wider societal gains in genomics, will be vital in ensuring the gains are distributed equitably.

Moving Forward

By viewing these challenges in public health and climate change as interconnected, the solutions developed can be disseminated in a way which addresses multiple sectors, enhancing the potential which genomics holds. Therefore, the UK’s ambition to regain its ‘Life Science superpower’ status must not underestimate the power of global participation in realising this goal, as well as the ethical and scientific responsibility to ensure all countries receive equity to access and return. Through this collaboration, the threats facing the global population, some of which have been laid out here, are more likely to be managed effectively and fairly.