Health and Healthcare Systems

A new ‘diverse health database’ has already uncovered millions of new genetic variants. Here’s how it could help create health equity

Doctor pipetting DNA samples into a tube.

Newly discovered genetic variants could help close health equity gaps. Image: Unsplash/National Cancer Institute

Victoria Masterson
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • A $3.1 billion research programme in the US has already identified more than 275 million previously unknown genetic variants that could help fight disease.
  • Its health database is described as “one of the most diverse in history” and includes data from under-represented communities and ethnic minorities.
  • Closing gaps in health and wellbeing is the core focus of the World Economic Forum’s Global Health Equity Network.

One million people from historically underrepresented ethnic and social groups are being invited to help build “one of the most diverse health databases in history”.

The $3.1 billion All of Us Research Program in the United States hopes to accelerate research that could improve health and is led by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the main US government agency for conducting and supporting medical research.

More than 275 million genetic variants that weren’t known about before have already been uncovered, the project reports.

Have you read?

Genetic data must be more diverse

Until now, more than 90% of people taking part in large genetic studies have been of European origin – resulting in “a narrow understanding of the biology of diseases,” say NIH directors, which in turn has “impeded the development of new treatments and prevention strategies for all populations”.

Now, All of Us has released a genomic data set where half of the nearly 250,000 participants are of non-European genetic ancestry. And almost 80% of participants are from communities that are historically under-represented in biomedical research.

In the journal Nature, All of Us researchers also report that 46% of participants are from under-represented racial and ethnic minorities.

Ethnic diversity in genetic research unlocks new health hopes

The new genetic variants revealed through this diverse dataset can help scientists better understand the genetic influences on health and disease, “especially in communities who have been left out of research in the past,” the researchers say.

For example, almost 4 million of the newly identified genetic variants are in areas that may be linked to disease risk. And nearly 4,000 genetic variants are linked with more than 100 diseases across participants of both European and African ancestry.

One of the discoveries is around type 2 diabetes, which affects about 1 in 10 people in the US. Over 600 genetic markers – 145 of which were previously unknown – could help scientists better understand the disease, reports news site The Optimist Daily.

Racism in health widens inequalities

Discrimination in healthcare – whether it’s conscious or unconscious – is a big driver of racial health inequalities, according to medical journal The Lancet.

This includes causing avoidable disease and premature death among groups of already disadvantaged people.

For example, data shows Black or Hispanic people in the US are up to 1.8 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than white people.

A separate study in the journal Science found racial bias in health algorithms in the US had more than halved the number of Black patients recommended for extra care.

Racism, xenophobia, discrimination, and health
Racism and discrimination can impact health outcomes, a scenario the All of Us Research Program is working to address. Image: The Lancet

Closing health equity gaps

Closing gaps in health and wellbeing is the core focus of the World Economic Forum’s Global Health Equity Network.

This aims to tackle the root causes of health disparities by bringing together communities, government, civil society and the private sector to drive systems change.


What is the World Economic Forum doing to improve healthcare systems?

One of the Network’s initiatives is the Zero Health Gaps Pledge, where organizations commit to actions that will promote health equity in their operations, workforce and policies. This includes understanding the health equity needs of their workforce, measuring the impact of efforts like health and wellbeing benefits, and sharing key learnings.

Another is that more than 90% of all maternal deaths from air pollution happen in low- and middle-income countries. And in the US, Black mothers are two and a half times more likely to die than white mothers.

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