US biotech startup’s plan to sequence Sherpa DNA raises ethical issues

An American biotech company’s attempt to find a treatment for COVID-19 by studying the DNA in the blood of Nepal’s Sherpa people to see how they thrive despite low oxygen levels at high altitude has been criticised by doctors and some Sherpas themselves

Jun 24, 2020

Kathmandu: An American biotech company’s attempt to find a treatment for COVID-19 by studying the DNA in the blood of Nepal’s Sherpa people to see how they thrive despite low oxygen levels at high altitude has been criticised by doctors and some Sherpas themselves.

The start-up Variant Bio will try to extract the genetic code in the Sherpa DNA  that gives them such stamina and endurance despite the air in the region where they live in Nepal having only half the oxygen levels at sea level.

Variant Bio says the research will help develop therapies to treat patients suffering from COVID-19 because the virus affects their lungs and reduces oxygen levels in the blood just as with people who suffer from acute mountain sickness.

“You can end up dying from hypoxia with Covid-19,” Variant Bio co-founder and geneticist Stephane Castel is quoted in a news report as saying. “Perhaps there’s a way to keep people healthy while they’re still in that condition.”

However, public health experts have cast doubt about the scientific basis for such research, and some Sherpa academics have raised ethical issues about the research.

“Knowing how the genes of indigenous and marginalised communities around the world have been misused for research I am very concerned that they are trying to use the my community back in Nepal for private profit,” says Sonam Futi Sherpa, a PhD student at the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University in the United States.

She says the Variant Bio project raised immediate red flags about genome research, law and ethics because local people in Nepal are not aware of the study, and even the Sherpa people in Khumbu who are involved in the research may have not been told about the intention of the research.

“This research is unethical at several levels,” Sherpa explains. “According to international clinical law, if a drug is developed from the use of any community, that community should benefit from it otherwise it is unethical and ultimately illegal.”      

This is not the first time that scientists have tried to uncover the secrets of Himalayan dwellers to find out what makes them so active at altitudes where most fit people from lower elevations cease to function. In fact, Edmund Hillary once described Nepal’s Khumbu region as ‘the most surveyed, examined, blood-taken, anthropologically dissected area in the world’.

The search for a vaccine and drug therapies against COVID-19 has drawn some doctors to resort to desperate measures against patients with acute symptoms. One New York City doctor recently recommended drugs like Diamox used to treat high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) since COVID-19 patients also suffered from low oxygen intake through the lungs.

“Treating COVID-19 using medications intended for acute mountain sickness is not logical because they have completely different causes,” explains Buddha Basnyat, an expert on high altitude medicine who co-authored an article in the British Medical Journal on the subject recently. “The use of medications for high altitude illness to treat COVID-19 could have a potentially dangerous outcome.”

But Variant Bio is convinced Sherpa genes hide a secret that could be useful in developing drugs not just against COVID-19 but also for metabolic disorders and immune response.

It defends the research saying many medicines developed in the past have used and replicated traits found in people across the world – for example, some prescription drugs to fight cholesterol were based on a DNA sequence extracted from African people who were genetically not prone to the condition.

Variant Bio is also taking DNA samples from the blood of Maori people in New Zealand who tend to metabolise carbohydrates better than others, to find a genetic antidote to diabetes. It is also conducting research among the people of the Faroe Islands and Pakistan.

The company appears to have been prepared for an ethical backlash from its methodology, and its CEO Andrew Farnum who used to head the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation work with infectious diseases, suggested to Bloomberg that the advantages in finding cures outweighed other concerns.

Variant Bio says it has hired a Sherpa doctor in Nepal to deal with local officials and help with taking blood samples from 2,000 people in Nepal from October. The company said it was going to compensate local communities by paying for the translation of a book about Sherpa culture and refurbishing a local school in Khumbu.

Sonam Futi Sherpa is not satisfied, she told Nepali Times in an email: “This company has not got permission from the Nepal Health Research Council yet, but they are planning to start sample collection. A private company should not have authorship over the genes of Sherpas or any other community.”