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Covid-19 caused the most significant public health crisis of the 21st century – the longer-term social, cultural, and economic outcomes of which will be hard to determine for some time, if ever. In the short term however, the pandemic has had an indisputable impact on the genomics industry.
Genomics technology is now a fact of life
For the vast majority of the general public exposure to genomics technology prior to the emergence of Covid-19 was limited to consumer-focused ancestry products such as 23andMe. The pandemic changed this.
In many countries, this shift in public awareness has been driven in part by repeated references to genomic technology during government briefings. Using google news as an indicator of the topics being publicly discussed reveals references to the terms genomic or genomics increased by more than 200 per cent between 2019 and 2022.
The pandemic has also had a tangible impact on general awareness of genomics technology among policymakers. The UK Government’s willingness to share its genomic tracking data with the rest of the world was vital to our collective response to the threat the virus posed, earning special praise from both the WHO and Germany’s chief vaccinologist, Prof. Dr. Christian Drosten – who recently admitted that his country based its entire pandemic policy on UK, Danish, and Israeli data.
The pandemic forced governments around the world to wake up to the importance and power of mass genomic surveys to do tangible good.
A future of more readily available genomics technology?
So, what does this mean? Researchers and commentators alike have heralded the birth of a new age of humanity since the structure of DNA was first determined in the 1950s. Supported by genetic science, it was believed humankind would render disease obsolete and break our connection to evolutionary processes. As we know too well, disease remains very much a fact of life and the development of our species is still subject to the random forces of evolution.
Nevertheless, the real promise of genomics technology is now beginning to become more apparent.
To start with, we have an increasingly accurate understanding of both the processes which drive the evolution of pathogens and why they affect some people more acutely than others based on genetic predisposition. In fact, researchers at Imperial College London recently found that people with a common genetic change to one protein were less likely to be hospitalised with severe Covid-19.
Further, the wider availability of genetic testing developed by companies such as BGI Group is helping to identify inherited disease safely and accurately, allowing earlier intervention where a diagnosis may have been missed – leading to better and more targeted treatment.
Hearing loss and deafness is a particular area of focus for the company, and one in which it is increasingly recognised as a world leader. Over 400 million people, including 34 million children, live with disabling hearing loss, affecting their health and quality of life. Thankfully, progress in the form of genetic testing advances is being made.
A number of recent BGI-authored studies support the efficacy of genetic testing for hearing loss versus more traditional hearing screening approaches. A 2019 study of over 12,000 individuals revealed that genetic screening detected 13% more hearing-impaired infants than hearing screening alone. A 2021 study published in Nature has further underlined the potential of genetic testing in diagnosing hearing loss – indicating that a stepwise approach to testing produces even more accurate results.
Unfortunately, these methods of genomic testing are not yet generally available to the public. Given approximately 40% of hearing loss in children has a genetic component, it is essential that genetic testing becomes a routine element of early treatment and vigilance. This is especially true given the profound developmental challenges children with hearing loss face – even more so when they have not been diagnosed.
As the world emerges from the pandemic with a newly found appreciation for genomics technology, the stage is set for improved outcomes for those living with inherited conditions. It is essential that our leaders apply the lessons learned during the pandemic, particularly the importance of expanding the use of genomics to secure better public health outcomes, and encourage the private sector to expand the testing solutions on offer. Further, as Germany’s Dr. Christian Drosten indicated, scientific cooperation across borders is an essential component of our efforts to respond to public health crises and research in general.