The GISAID platform, a global repository of genetic data related to influenza and COVID-19, is facing scrutiny due to recent restrictions on access for researchers monitoring COVID-19 variants and sub-lineages. These limitations have raised concerns about the reliability of the data, with speculation that it may be filtered or manipulated to mislead or conceal information about virus evolution and the emergence of new strains. There are also debates about who controls the platform, with suggestions ranging from the Chinese, Americans, the World Economic Forum, or a group of pharmaceutical giants.
Access restrictions on leading researchers have occurred multiple times during the COVID-19 pandemic, only to be restored after online criticisms. However, in some cases, their access has been limited to certain utilities on the platform. Reports of possible data manipulation on GISAID have further fueled doubts about its credibility.
In April 2023, China announced that it would no longer upload its SARS-CoV-2 sequences to the GISAID platform and would instead maintain its own database. This practice has become common among many countries.
GISAID, originally founded in 2008 as the Global Initiative on Sharing Avian Influenza Data, expanded its scope to include COVID-19 sequences during the pandemic. It is recognized as the most extensive repository of COVID-19 sequences globally. However, it has faced criticism for its lack of transparency and conflicts with research laboratories focused on academic research rather than immediate public health concerns.
The establishment of GISAID was influenced by the efforts of Italian researcher Ilaria Capua, who advocated for the public release of genomic data on avian influenza. The platform faced legal issues when the Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics disconnected the database from the GISAID portal in 2009.
GISAID’s cooperation agreement with the German government designated Germany as the long-term host and responsible for technical hosting facilities. However, by 2021, the ministry initially involved was no longer engaged in hosting or curation.
In 2023, GISAID faced criticism from funders like the European Commission and the Rockefeller Foundation for its lack of transparency, resulting in denied long-term funding from the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA).
Scientists have called for open access to data, with open letters and prestigious journals advocating for the deposition of SARS-CoV-2 sequences in open-access databases. However, GISAID’s restricted access procedures have hindered scientists from offering criticisms, further fueling concerns about transparency.
The ongoing issues surrounding GISAID’s limitations on data access and concerns about its governance transparency have led to disputes among scientists and potential competitors in the field. The platform’s position as a central repository of genetic data naturally attracts attention and criticism.
Given these concerns, there are suggestions that the information provided about emerging SARS-CoV-2 variants and sub-lineages, as well as the effectiveness of vaccines, may be inaccurate or even manipulated. The limited genomic sequencing and restricted access to critical data on various platforms, including GISAID, raise doubts about the accuracy of the information available to the public.