Internal WiP: Stephanie Johnson

How can tracking microbes change the way we think about ethics?

Infectious diseases are a major threat to human health, and one of the most significant risks facing the United Kingdom (UK). Emerging infections, pandemics and drug resistant infections pose some of the highest risks. 

Analysing the genetic material of disease causing micro-organisms (‘pathogen sequencing’) is transforming public health practice. Cutting-edge sequencing technologies allow real-time mapping of: the evolution of pathogens; transmission patterns across populations; factors that affect spread; and relationships between infections (who infected who). There is potential to create real-time globalised platforms of infectious disease surveillance, which track and predict outbreaks. This means earlier and more effective public health intervention. 

These advances will reveal not only technical information about disease risk and spread, but will expose and emphasize the biological and social relationships between people, institutions and countries. This will raise important practical ethical questions. Who should be told when a healthcare worker or family member is identified as the source of infection that killed a patient? Should the NHS share the information it has collected about drug resistant infections, with other countries, if it helps stop their spread? What if they cannot ensure data is non-identifiable?

Determining best practice in the use of pathogen sequencing, and more broadly in using data-driven methods to control and prevent infectious disease, is a complex and pressing challenge. I will present an ‘in progress’ Wellcome Fellowship application that aims to identify and address these ethical challenges.  

Venue: Petrov Room, Suite 1 Littlegate House, 16-17 St Ebbe's Street, Oxford OX1 1PT

Booking: not required – internal only