Listening to a discussion between polymath Razib Khan and demographer, social scientist, and geneticist Melinda Mills, I was struck by something Mills said in the context of using information such as polygenic scores gleaned from studies on huge genetic databases to help people with fertility problems overcome those problems. It is clear she is uncomfortable with the subject (begin at at 39m21s if interested):
There’s a larger issue that I know you’ve thought about before. Many of us are thinking about, “Why couldn’t you apply this?” Well, the first thing, the elephant in the room that we haven’t talked about, is that our study–and about 90% of genetic discoveries–are done on European ancestry populations. So as a social scientist, it’s one of the first things you notice.
We have an open access paper that’s in Communications Biology where we actually analyzed all 4,000 genetic discoveries to date and looked at these aspects. So that’s one reason. If you would apply these right now, you know, they’re only relevant to European ancestry groups and that would be very problematic. It would exacerbate health inequalities.
Because the lion’s share of all genetically actionable information has, up to this point, come from the genomes of ancestral Europeans, the benefits of applying these insights to real people would disproportionately accrue to people of European descent. And that, as the lady says, is problematic. If these discoveries don’t help Africans, Amerindians, and Asians, too, then nobody gets to benefit from them. We’re trying to narrow the gap, not widen it, after all.
She is an impressive researcher and if she’s talking to Khan, she’s a lot smarter than I am. The intent here is not disrespect or scorn. She is the product of the intellectual environment she lives in, though, and this is it.
I do wonder, if the corona virus mutates again and begins infecting non-Asians at the rate it currently seems to be infecting Asians, and researchers are able to devise a vaccine that provides immunity for people of, say, European ancestry but proves ineffective for everyone else, will the FDA and the WHO ban production of said vaccine to the cheers of the blue check mark brigade? While I can envision a Babylon Bee story reporting on the WHO doing exactly that, I can also envision The New York Times reporting the same.