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Formalising our Relationship with the World Health Organisation

One of the most common questions that we get asked when we introduce the Human Variome Project to new people is, "What's your relationship with the World Health Organisation?" It's an easy question to answer, as the Project and WHO have been working together since the beginning. WHO sponsored and attended the very first meeting of the Project, and over the years we've worked with them on a number of initiatives, including the Grand Challenges in Genomics for Public Health in Developing Countries. But, while fruitful, our relationship has always been an informal one. Until now.

Earlier this month, Human Variome Project International Ltd (the legal structure that represents our Consortium members) signed a formal Memorandum of Understanding with WHO that sets out the formal relationship between WHO and the Human Variome Project. In essence, the agreement sets out how the two will work together to assist WHO in achieving its goal of providing leadership in global health matters that relate to human genomics, with a particular emphasis on service delivery and safety in low- and middle-income countries.

This marks a new initiative for WHO. While it has always had a small program on genetics and health, focusing mainly on genetic diseases for some time, this new program marks a change in focus to the broader issue of human genomics and public health. The public health implications of advances in human genetics and genomics are of increasing importance to all professionals working in the field.

Our agreement with WHO is a significant complement to our existing status as an NGO with operational status with UNESCO as it links the Project and our Consortium members to the world of international health. WHO is responsible for the key issues affecting health including shaping international health research agenda, setting norms and standards for health matters and assessing health trends. The Human Variome Project's key contribution to these efforts will be to give a voice to the various health professionals working in human genetics and genomics, particularly those in low- and middle-income countries where opportunities to shape policy are sometimes weak.

The key mechanism for this will be the HVP Country Nodes and the International Confederation of Countries Advisory Council. The Project has 22 formally constituted Country Nodes together with another six countries that are in the process of seeking membership. These are found in all regions of the world. The interest in HVP Country Nodes is growing fast as researchers, clinicians and health bureaucrats increasingly realise the importance of national bodies to oversee the transparent and open sharing of variant data and information between countries.