A critical genetic database is under fire

Donors and scientists accuse GISAID of caprice and a lack of transparency

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

To outsiders, the name GISAID means little. But inside science this small non-profit organisation is a mighty force in the storage and sharing of genetic data about pathogens. The Global Initiative on Sharing Avian Influenza Data began life in 2006, the brainchild of a group of scientists. During the covid-19 pandemic it became essential for sharing coronavirus sequences. Donors have since showered it with millions of dollars.