The Human Genome Project After 20 Years: Model for COVID-19 Vaccine?

By Shlomo Maital   

                              Prof. Shirley Tighlman

    Twenty years ago, the human genome project was completed.  The complete human genome was sequenced, and then published openly in both Nature and Science journals.

     The project has changed healthcare and much more.  Speaking about the project on Ira Flatow’s Science Friday podcast, Prof. Shirley Tighlman, former President of Princeton University and a key scientist in the Genome project, noted that one result was ‘humility’ – we learned that the human genome was roughly as full and complex as that of a nematode or a flatworm.  (Humans have 22,000 protein-coding genes, roughly, and C-elegans worms have about 20,700). 

     The human genome project is still the world’s largest collaborative biological project. Planning started after the idea was picked up in 1984 by the US government, the project formally launched in 1990, and was declared complete on April 14, 2003

      A key role was played by Craig Venter.    In 2000, Venter and Francis Collins of the National Institutes of Health and U.S. Public Genome Project jointly made the announcement of the mapping of the human genome, a full three years ahead of the expected end of the Public Genome Program.  Venter’s startup Celera (Latin for speed or acceleration) found a fast way to sequence genomes – and saved many years and a lot of money.

     Today, a person’s genome can be sequenced  in a matter of hours,  and the cost (done by private gene-sequencing firms) is less than $1,000.  

      I regret that the COVID-19 vaccine project was not similarly organized, as a joint public collaborative project – with the results openly published and made available to all.  You could argue that the competition between Moderna and Pfizer and J&J and Astra-Zeneca, and maybe a hundred other labs, was productive.  But imagine if all this brainpower had collaborated?   And openly published the ‘recipe’, like the recipe for sourdough bread!   And then organized all the vaccine plants in the world to make the vaccines – and provide them to the world’s population.