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Kuwait’s war on ISIS and DNA

DNA testing and genomics is now so prevalent there are national genotyping platforms. Iceland became the first country in history to sequence the genomes of its population. Other countries are lining up.

The Faroe Islands, an autonomous region of Denmark, is sequencing its population of 50k. GenomeDenmark released its first 30 reference genomes. The Genome of the Netherlands project published a reference genome for the Dutch based on 750 genomes from two-parent-one child ‘trios’. Genomic England is working on a 100k genomes project. The United States is interpreting a million genomes as part of Obama’s precision medicine initiative. The Korean Genome project aims to sequence all 50 million living Koreans. Yet more countries are sequencing to unravel the secrets of ancestry, such as Wales’s DNA Wales initiative. These national programmes are further complemented by the Personal Genome Project Global Network, now covering the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and Austria.

Now Kuwait is changing the playing field. In early July, just days after the deadly Imam Sadiq mosque bombing claimed by ISIS, Kuwait ruled to instate mandatory DNA-testing for all permanent residents. This is the first use of DNA testing at the national-level for security reasons, specifically as a counter-terrorism measure.

An initial $400 million dollars is set aside for collecting the DNA profiles of all 1.3 million citizens and 2.9 million foreign residents. The ready date for this unbelievably ambitious database is September 2016. If completed, especially in this short time-frame, it will forever change the history of the use of DNA in society.

Naturally, the announcement by Kuwait is drawing concerns about human rights. The creation of such a database would be illegal in the United States or Europe due to privacy protection laws. A growing list of countries have national DNA profile databases but to date are only for criminals. Europe currently prohibits the creation of such a database based on Article 8 (“Right to a private life”) of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

Image: 'Kuwait from above,' by Lindsay Silveira. CC-BY-ND-2.0 via Flickr.
Image: ‘Kuwait from above,’ by Lindsay Silveira. CC-BY-ND-2.0 via Flickr.

Compliance will be enforced. Refusal to register ones DNA will result in a fine of $33,000 and a prison sentence of year. Submitting a fake sample will be punished with seven. Even temporary visitors may be tested.

Kuwait’s announcement to monitor DNA is part of a larger story of massive local and global change. The Shia mosque attack, which claimed the lives of 27 and wounded 227, provoked Kuwait to declare war on ISIS. Interestingly, Kuwait’s National Assembly passed a law in April that reinstates mandatory military duty for all men once they reach the age of 18. This law comes into effect in 2017.

Of the world’s 196 countries, how many will exceed the necessary threshold of combined priorities, external contingencies and resources needed to invest in national genomics programs now or in the future? How many will have the luxury to take that step unfettered by issues of national security? Or might they all get there in the end? Could Kuwait’s stance and continued attacks by ISIS soon spread DNA profiling measures through to other countries in the Middle East? Or beyond?

In a ranking of countries and dependencies by population size, Kuwait’s permanent population of 3.4 million is the 133rd most populous of 232 entities, the smallest being Holy See with 799 inhabitants. This means a significant number could conduct comprehensive DNA testing for $400 million or far less using comparable estimates. The 46 that have populations under 200k could do so for a fraction of the cost.

Comprehensive DNA testing, or genome sequencing, of countries with small populations is more feasible than expecting China or India to ever introduce blanket surveys. Prohibitive costs still block its use in many countries. Most notably India has been working for years towards a national DNA database to help with the 40,000 cases of unidentified human remains and missing persons it deals with on a yearly basis. Thus, moving to national identification programmes for most seems a long way off.

But times are rapidly changing, especially now that Kuwait has taken a lead. Costs continue to drop, public awareness of DNA profiling is spreading, and political tensions are escalating.

How many countries will have national genomics/DNA-testing programmes in 50 years – and for what purposes – remains to be seen. While health, genealogy, historical context, disaster identification and criminal forensics have driven the creation of innovative national genomics programs thus far, it is now ISIS and the threat of political violence that has motivated radical efforts by Kuwait to harness the power of DNA under dire circumstances. DNA continues to embed itself it all areas of modern society. How might it play a role next?

Featured image credit: ‘Kuwait city at night,’ by Khaleel Haidar. CC-BY-NC-2.0 via Flickr.

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