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Geneticists warn of "coercive" collection of DNA

Tuesday January 19th 2021

Genetics experts have called for scientific journals to re-examine academic papers where there are question marks over consent for DNA collection.

Dr Francesca Forzano, Professor Maurizio Genuardi, Professor Yves Moreau, writing on behalf of the European Society of Human Genetics, also call for companies to stop selling equipment to institutions involved in unethical studies, and for academic institutions to end collaborations that could be implicated in the practice.

Writing in the European Journal of Human Genetics, they warn that compulsory collection of DNA, which is being undertaken in some parts of the world, is both unethical and could result in people unwilling to donate biological samples.

They cite abuses in China, Thailand, and on the US/Mexico border and say while scientific journals ask that studies submitted to them should have ethical approval, they may fail to recognise that some ethics committees do not abide by expected ethical standards.

They point out that in the Xinjiang province of China, authorities collected DNA samples from ordinary people being as part of a programme of surveillance and control and could therefore potentially taint any research that uses the data.

“It appears that almost half of over a thousand articles describing forensic genetics studies in Chinese populations have at least one co-author from the Chinese police, judiciary, or related institutions,” write the authors.

“It is impossible to carry out forensic population genetics research in China independently from the Chinese authorities. All this literature is thus potentially ethically tainted.”

They say publishers should conduct a mass reassessment of the literature and should also require further information on consent and ethical approvals, while companies should follow the example of Thermo Fisher Scientific, which has already stopped selling equipment to Xinjiang police forces.

The authors say the example of Kuwait, which overturned the compulsory collection of DNA from all citizens, residents, and visitors to the country in 2016 – one year after introducing the law and following an international campaign – was encouraging.

“While China, the USA, and Thailand are very different countries from Kuwait, both in their size and their leadership, the Kuwaiti example gives us reason to hope that international pressure may have an effect. We are concerned that the growing public awareness of abusive DNA collections will have a detrimental effect on the image of genetics in the wider world,” they write.

“In this time of COVID-19, Chinese science is increasingly under scrutiny from all quarters. The country’s reaction to the pandemic has been widely praised. It is surely not in their interest to damage their standing in the scientific world by continuing with what are clearly unethical and discriminatory practices.”

Forzano F, Genuardi M, Moreau Y. ESHG warns against misuses of genetic tests and biobanks for discrimination purposes. European Journal of Human Genetics 18 January 2021

[abstract]

Tags: Asia | Europe | Genetics

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