Why India urgently needs a legal framework for Genomics

GS Paper II & III

News Excerpt:

Despite significant established capacity and expertise in India, a significant number of samples from India are sequenced and/or analysed by companies abroad with little oversight and regulation.


  • The last two decades have seen unprecedented advances in genomics
    • These advancements have come in the background of our ability to sequence, analyse and interpret genomes at an unprecedented scale, along with an emerging and expanding corpus of evidence to act upon the genomic information for healthcare decision-making.
  • As sequencing costs continue to plummet, the next decade is expected to see widespread use of genome sequencing in clinical settings.
    • The population-scale genome programmes currently underway in many large and small countries encompassing millions of genomes would form the foundation and fuel this paradigm shift.

What is genome sequencing?

  • The human genome is the entire set of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) residing in the nucleus of every cell of each human body. 
  • It carries the complete genetic information responsible for the development and functioning of the organism. 
  • The DNA consists of a double-stranded molecule built up by four bases – adenine (A), cytosine (C), guanine (G) and thymine (T). 
  • Every base on one strand pairs with a complementary base on the other strand (A with T and C with G) In all, the genome is made up of approximately 3.05 billion such base pairs.
  • While the sequence or order of base pairs is identical in all humans, there are differences in the genome of every human being that make them unique. 
  • The process of deciphering the order of base pairs to decode the genetic fingerprint of a human is called genome sequencing.

Applications of genome sequencing:

  • Genome sequencing has been used to evaluate rare disorders, preconditions for disorders, even cancer from the viewpoint of genetics, rather than as diseases of certain organs. 
    • Nearly 10,000 diseases — including cystic fibrosis and thalassemia — are known to be the result of a single gene malfunctioning.
  • In the past decade, it has also been used as a tool for prenatal screening, to investigate whether the foetus has genetic disorders or anomalies. 
  • The New York Times notes that the Nobel Prize-winning technology Crispr, which relies on sequencing, may potentially allow scientists to repair disease-causing mutations in human genomes. 
  • Liquid biopsies, where a small amount of blood is examined for DNA markers, could help diagnose cancer long before symptoms appear. 
  • In public health, sequencing has been used to read the codes of viruses—one of its first practical usages was in 2014, when a group of scientists from M.I.T and Harvard sequenced samples of Ebola from infected African patients to show how genomic data of viruses could reveal hidden pathways of transmission, which might then be halted, thus slowing or even preventing the infection’s spread. 
  • At the population level, genomics has several benefits. Advanced analytics and AI could be applied to essential datasets created by collecting genomic profiles across the population, allowing to develop greater understanding of causative factors and potential treatments of diseases. 
    • This would be especially relevant for rare genetic diseases, which require large datasets to find statistically important correlations.

Significance of Genomics in India:

  • India has not been too far behind in human genomics, with the announcement of the first genome sequencing in 2009, 1,000 genomes in 2019 and recently concluded 10,000 genomes.
    • These efforts have contributed to significant insights into diseases in the population, estimates of the prevalence of many conditions, and serving as baseline data for decision-making, apart from its utility in accelerating research.
  • However, given the large, diverse and stratified population encompassing over 1.4 billion people, India needs to ensure that the benefits of genomics are not lost out to our people.
  • In sequencing individuals at scale to match similar efforts across the world, a well-thought-through legal and policy framework and wider and integral participation of industry are essential to accelerate this in India.

Need for legal framework regarding Genomics in India:

  • Data protection: 
    • While the Health Ministry Steering Committee clearances are required for research collaborations, the Director General of Foreign Trade notification enables samples to cross borders for commercial purposes. 
    • This has been widely exploited by large pharma and research organisations abroad to perform research on Indian samples. 
    • Despite significant established capacity and expertise in India, a significant number of samples from India are sequenced and/or analysed by companies abroad with little oversight and regulation.
  • Fragmentation of genetic data:
    • With a number of organisations providing genetic testing services, the data remain in silos. 
    • Well-aggregated summary data of these tests and results could provide key evidence for public health decision-making. 
    • For example, summary data of variants and prevalence of variants reported from labs, without personal/ identifiable information, could enable rough estimates of population-level prevalence of diseases and enable the development of cheaper genetic tests. 
    • Without a framework for collecting summary information, the data remains inaccessible for public health decision-making.
  • Discrimination based on genetic information:
    • This is indeed a real concern due to the lack of laws preventing it. 
    • For example, a positive genetic test could potentially prevent one from accessing insurance or reimbursement if the insurance claims it as a pre-existing condition. 
    • In fact, family members or even communities could also be discriminated against, given shared genetic variants and prevalence. 
    • The U.S. formulated the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act in 2008, which prevents discrimination based on genetic information.
  • Lack of Equity and diversity in genetic data: 
    • This needs to be addressed, especially in a diverse country like India, as unregulated market forces could widen the already acute barriers to access to better healthcare, especially for the poor and ethnic minorities. 
    • Lack of equity could result in less research, less insights/ evidence for clinical decision making and eventually, exclusion of such groups from access to the benefits of genomic technologies.
  • Ethical use:
    • Ensuring ethical use of the technology is paramount to both advance it and ensure that people benefit from the use while also being protected from misuse. 
    • Evidence-based use of genomics and mechanisms to ensure the quality and validity of genomic tests are therefore key. 
    • In many countries, professional bodies have come forward to be the vanguards, putting together guidelines, policies and frameworks for fair use. 
      • Similar efforts supported by legal provisions are needed in India.

Way forward:

  • The value of the right guidance and policies in advancing human genomics cannot be overstated. 
  • Effective regulations ensure a fair playing field. 
    • Clear policies foster trust among stakeholders, encouraging collaboration and innovation in this rapidly evolving field. 
  • By emphasising ethical principles and aligning policies with societal needs, human genomics research can realise its full potential in advancing healthcare, improving outcomes, and enhancing the quality of life. 
  • With proper oversight, genomic research can revolutionise healthcare, offering personalised treatments, disease prevention strategies, and diagnostic tools. 


India has the potential to be a leader by enabling genomics for the masses at an unprecedented scale, opening up unprecedented opportunities and heralding a better and healthier future for its people, but only if it puts the best foot forward.

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