GISAID, the global database of virus sequences, has faced a lot of criticism recently from the virologists and bioinformaticians who rely on it—potentially hindering responses to future virus outbreaks.
First, there was controversy around genetic information from environmental samples taken at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, China, which Chinese researchers posted to GISAID. An outside group of scientists found the sequences and analyzed them, finding the samples supported the hypothesis that SARS-CoV-2 originated in animals and jumped to humans at the seafood market. And then, GISAID revoked those scientists’ access to the database. (The original Chinese research group eventually published their findings.)
Last week, another controversy came to light: GISAID is claiming that the first SARS-CoV-2 sequence to be publicly shared was posted on its platform, back in January 2020. Even though plenty of evidence suggests the first sequence was shared days earlier at virological.org, a virology forum. Reporting in Science Magazine and evidence shared on Twitter shows the true story of these early days of info-sharing, as well as how GISAID has tried to retroactively revise the narrative.
While these issues might seem inconsequential outside of a small circle of experts, the controversies could lead some of the world’s top virologists and epidemiologists to stop using a major source for outbreak information. It doesn’t really matter who posted a SARS-CoV-2 sequence first. But it does matter that experts have trusted places to share data and collaborate on vital research.
Without open data-sharing platforms like GISAID, the world may be less prepared for coming novel disease outbreaks. These recent controversies (and the broader debate over COVID-19’s origins) also speak to larger gaps in trust that could hinder future collaborations.