COVID-19 has laid bare the discrepancies between treatment and infection rates between minorities and those of European ancestry.
  • Pandemic highlights differences between infection rates among ethnic groups.
  • Medical experts are turning to “precision medicine,” or tailored treatment informed by genomic data.
  • The World Economic Forum unveiled an initiative that aims to boost the use and collection of genomic data to help specific populations, particularly during the pandemic.

COVID-19 is laying bare how less fortunate populations are hammered by a pandemic and prompting health experts to turn anew to the idea of tailor-made healthcare boosted by recently collected troves of genetic and genomic data. 

The World Economic Forum, which hosts the annual meeting of business leaders in Davos, Switzerland, has laid out a plan for boosting the diversity of genomic medicine and boosting so-called precision medicine. The group has pulled together 30 global leaders to develop plans that can be adapted locally. The work will also address what they call six global tensions — such as balancing individual privacy and societal benefit.

“The differences in our DNA can have important health implications,” WEF precision-medicine project lead Elissa Prichep told Karma in an email. “We cannot be aware of or understand the impact of these differences across populations when nearly 80% of genome-wide association studies have been on people of European descent. That is not diversity.”

The pandemic has most severely affected the poor, minorities, indigenous populations, the elderly, especially those in nursing homes, and the incarcerated.

Worldwide, as of Aug. 5, more than 710,000 have died from COVID-19 and 18.9 million have been infected, according to Johns Hopkins University & Medicine Coronavirus Resource Center.

“The lack of diversity in genomic research studies is leading to blind spots,’’ Prichep said in a press statement announcing the WEF initiative. “Nonwhite minority populations may receive less accurate preventative screenings, less reliable diagnostics, less targeted treatments.”

Other researchers have found those blind spots. Data from the UK Biobank had a four-and-half times higher prediction accuracy for people of European ancestry than those of African descent, and two times higher accuracy than those of East Asian parentage, according to study from the Broad Institute of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital. 

Income makes a difference, too. “Participants living in areas with higher levels of socio-economic deprivation had a higher rate (8.9%) of previous infection than those who live in more affluent areas of the country (6.1%),” wrote the study’s authors.

“COVID-19 has become the catalyst that intensified the existing fragile relationship between healthcare providers and the at-risk populations. This mistrust is compounded by the information gap that exists in these communities,” Iris P. Frye, founder and chief innovator of Parity Health Information & Technology wrote in June in “The Impact of the Underserved in Times of Crisis.”  

A discrepancy in health care and proper medical attention, depending on ethnicity, income and general life circumstances, is far from new. Longstanding power imbalances have created the problems, but COVID-19 has brought them to the fore starkly.

Another hurdle to overcome is that not all countries have digitized their health data and some lack the funds and wherewithal to make that happen.

“Leaders in every country, and particularly those with significant resource constraints, must make difficult choices about where to invest in building infrastructure,” added Prichep. She and her colleague Cameron Fox, a precision-medicine specialist at WEF, recently released guidelines to help those entities upgrade their health-data reporting methods.