Outbreaks of infectious disease cause serious and costly health and social problems. Two new technologies – pathogen whole genome sequencing (WGS) and Big Data analytics – promise to improve our capacity to detect and control outbreaks earlier, saving lives and resources. However, routinely using these technologies to capture more detailed and specific personal information could be perceived as intrusive and a threat to privacy.
Four community juries were convened in two demographically different Sydney municipalities and two regional cities in New South Wales, Australia (western Sydney, Wollongong, Tamworth, eastern Sydney) to elicit the views of well-informed community members on the acceptability and legitimacy of:
making pathogen WGS and linked administrative data available for public health research
using this information in concert with data linkage and machine learning to enhance communicable disease surveillance systems
Fifty participants of diverse backgrounds, mixed genders and ages were recruited by random-digit-dialling and topic-blinded social-media advertising. Each jury was presented with balanced factual evidence supporting different expert perspectives on the potential benefits and costs of technologically enhanced public health research and communicable disease surveillance and given the opportunity to question experts.
Almost all jurors supported data linkage and WGS on routinely collected patient isolates for the purposes of public health research, provided standard de-identification practices were applied. However, allowing this information to be operationalised as a syndromic surveillance system was highly contentious with three juries voting in favour, and one against by narrow margins. For those in favour, support depended on several conditions related to system oversight and security being met. Those against were concerned about loss of privacy and did not trust Australian governments to run secure and effective systems.
Participants across all four events strongly supported the introduction of data linkage and pathogenomics to public health research under current research governance structures. Combining pathogen WGS with event-based data surveillance systems, however, is likely to be controversial because of a lack of public trust, even when the potential public health benefits are clear. Any suggestion of private sector involvement or commercialisation of WGS or surveillance data was unanimously rejected.