Could Companies be Collecting your DNA from COVID Swabs?
Your swabs don't contain just COVID, and biotech companies could be taking advantage of that fact.
Before doing COVID testing at my previous job I was involved with extracting DNA from buccal swabs. These swabs would come from volunteers who would swab their cheeks (buccal) and stored in an envelope.
These swabs could last for months, although they may degrade after quite some time-up to years!
So when I started doing COVID testing I always found it weird that pop-up testing sites just appeared all over the place. Why would I pull into random parking lots to get swabbed?
So even back then, from my prior experience with DNA extraction, I knew that you could grab whatever you want from swabs depending on what type of extraction method you conduct (i.e. DNA or RNA extraction).
So imagine my lack of shock when some evidence comes out that Biotech companies may be selling COVID swabs to obtain people’s DNA.
A report made by the Sunday Times hints that the UK COVID testing company Cignpost Diagnostics is being investigated by the UK’s data privacy watchdog over concerns that the testing company may be selling patients’ swabs.
As they note, it seems that these swabs are intended to be sold to be used to gather information about “people’s health”. Now, this may seem innocuous, I mean what health information could they grab from a swab?
Well, remember that you don’t just donate SARS-COV2 viral particles, you may be donating your own nasal cells with those swabs. Thus, in a similar manner to my buccal swab extractions for DNA, you can extract DNA from nasal swabs as well!
By obtaining the genome of millions of people, various PCR and typing methods could be used to figure out certain gene prevalence within the population.
I don’t have access to the full Sunday Times paper, but it has been reported on the Timcast Website, which states:
The “research programme information sheet,” which was updated on October 21, states that the company retains data including “biological samples … and the DNA obtained from such samples”, as well as “genetic information derived from processing your DNA sample … using various technologies such as genotyping and whole or partial genome sequencing.”
The documents assert that the DNA information will be compiled along with “self- reported health and trait data” — like information about their customer’s medical history, and “information we obtain from other sources, such as publicly available demographic information.”
Imagine a biotech company, hoping to collect information to examine the prevalence of certain mutations for cancer, or human leukocyte antigen (HLA) typings that is required for organ and blood cell donors, or even whether people may be carriers for certain genes that affect the way they metabolize drugs, having the ability to buy tens of thousands of samples and creating profiles out of all of these samples!
There’s serious concerns about the creation of individual medical profiles, but it seems like these samples will likely be used to obtain population/demographic information.
This may not be all nefarious if you can find out whether people may carry genes for autoimmune disease or may experience an allergic response due to mutant enzymes, but that still doesn’t mean we should be accepting of biotech companies gaining entryway into our genomes, especially if they subvert our consent in order to obtain our personal information. It seems like the same may have occurred in regards to Cignpost Diagnostics (taken from Timcast News, as reported by the Sunday Times):
Take, for example, the Uyghur Muslims from the Xinjiang region of China. Increasing evidence has come out about many of these Uyghurs having samples collected in order to check for certain genes like the Human Leukocyte Antigen (HLA) genes or blood group types.
As I stated, these genes are vital to matching organ donors to recipients, and in the case of the Uyghurs there’s plenty of valid concerns about organ harvesting, and that the largescale collection of HLA genetic profiles could be used to match Uyghur Muslims with organ recipients.
In this instance, we can understand the horrors of widespread genomic collection of certain populations, and the possible ramifications when that information is used for horrendous circumstances.
Although this is happening in the UK, there were possible concerns that certain biotech companies could be setting up sketchy COVID swab collecting sites here in the US.
I remember watching a video by China in Focus last year that mentioned the then Trump administration banning the setup of various Chinese COVID testing companies over fears of security and data collection.
Now, I can’t find the video, and the information has to be taken with some skepticism, but the concerns should remain that massive amounts of people were/are willing to provide their nose swabs to whoever is willing to take them without any concerns of HIPAA violations.
There are chances that swabs stored in viral transport media (VTM) may degrade over time due to the antibiotics in the media, although that could easily be remedied by freezing samples which could allow them to last for years.
Either way, all of this speaks of something very concerning, and something that I’ve been thinking about since the rollout of mass testing.
Before I left my job, there was a meeting where someone hire up indicated that they were able to obtain people’s DNA through dry nasal swabs used for COVID testing, so even I have anecdotal evidence that this may be occurring. Although we threw away day old samples, there’s not telling how many labs may decide to hold onto some swabs.
We’re at the point where Big Pharma and Biotech companies have been allowed to subvert typical regulations, and conduct alarming research & testing procedures that go against our typical ethics processes. The same could be said for something as simple as a swab containing all of our personal DNA.
There’s already been prior privacy concerns about genetic testing companies such as 23 and Me or AncestryDNA possibly collecting millions of people’s data and creating databases that they could sell to third parties or use to patent certain genes.
Genetic privacy and the questions of one’s ownership of their own genomic information is a hot button issue that everyone should raise concerns over.
So the next time you decide to take a COVID test, make sure you know who the company is and what their privacy guidelines are, or else your genetic information may no longer be yours.
Remember, you don’t just donate COVID with swabs, and many companies may take advantage of that fact, much to our dismay.
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Das, S. & Greenwood, G. 2021. Testing firm can profit from sale of Covid swabs. Taken from https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/testing-firm-can-profit-from-sale-of-covid-swabs-w6vkb2f2f
Fairbanks, C. 2021. Leading COVID Test Firm is Planning to Sell Swabs Containing Customer’s DNA. Taken from https://timcast.com/news/leading-covid-test-firm-is-planning-to-sell-swabs-containing-customers-dna/
Martin, W. 2019. China is harvesting thousands of human organs from its Uighur Muslim minority, UN human-rights body hears. Taken from https://www.businessinsider.com/china-harvesting-organs-of-uighur-muslims-china-tribunal-tells-un-2019-9?op=1
Allyse, M. 2012. 23 and Me, We and You: direct-to-consumer genetics, intellectual property and informed consent. Taken from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6309979/
Jordan, B. 2015. 23andMe: how to make (a lot of) money out of your customers. Taken from https://www.medecinesciences.org/en/articles/medsci/full_html/2015/04/medsci20153104p447/medsci20153104p447.html