New Report for the Department of Defense Recommends Genomic Sequencing of Troops

An independent group of scientists has recommended that the Department of Defense (“DoD”) obtain and sequence the genomes of members of the military.

JASON, a group of between 30 and 60 scientists and created in 1960 which advises the U.S. government on scientific and technological issues, authored the report entitled “The $100 Genome: Implications for the DoD,” (pdf) which was released on January 13, 2011.

In the report, the scientists provided the following recommendation:

“The DoD should establish policies that result in the collection of genotype and phenotype data, the application of bioinformatics tools to support the health and effectiveness of military personnel, and the resolution of ethical and social issues that arise from these activities. The DoD and the VA should affiliate with or stand up a genotype/phenotype analysis program that addresses their respective needs. Waiting even two years to initiate this process may place them unrecoverably behind in the race for personal genomics information and applications.”

It’s good to see acknowledgment in the report of potential ethical issues, but there was no substantive discussion of them.  Deciding to collect DNA and sequence genomes of troops is, quite frankly, a no-brainer, and the report came to all the obvious conclusions.  What the military really requires is a report on how to discover, analyze, and address the myriad ethical issues associated with the obvious decision to sequence genomes.

A news article published yesterday in nextgov (“Report urges Defense to collect genome data on all troops“) discusses a few of the potential ethical issues, and includes a few quotes from me:

“According to Blaine Bettinger, a Syracuse, N.Y.-based intellectual property lawyer who has a doctorate in biochemistry with a concentration in genetics and writes the Genetic Genealogist blog, a mass collection of genome data at Defense could eventually help improve the health of military members and their families. Collecting basic genomic information on such a large population could also “benefit all of humanity,” Bettinger said.

But Bettinger warned that collection of such data also could be used against individuals if, for example, they had conditions the military could cite as a reason to limit their careers.”

I had a few major concerns about the potential ethical issues with this project, including the following:

1) privacy concerns (since anonymity of genomic data, if it’s made public or leaked, is nearly impossible to maintain);

2) sequencing without informed consent of the members of the military (will it be fine print, or explicitly explained?);

3) use as a screening method (either for denying entrance into the military, or used to steer people toward certain careers w/in the military;

4) and lastly, the unique problems that arise when several generations of a family enlist.  For example, John Doe Jr. enlists and reports that his father is General John Doe Sr.  An army doctor casually glances at the Doe’s genome reports on his iPad and says “no he’s not,” since they don’t share any appreciable amount of DNA.

Are there any potential ethical

There is a great potential for good here, and a great potential for harm.  How the military decides to proceed will determine which prevails.

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