Private UK health data donated for medical research shared with insurance companies

Article by Shanti Das: “Sensitive health information donated for medical research by half a million UK citizens has been shared with insurance companies despite a pledge that it would not be.

An Observer investigation has found that UK Biobank opened up its vast biomedical database to insurance sector firms several times between 2020 and 2023. The data was provided to insurance consultancy and tech firms for projects to create digital tools that help insurers predict a person’s risk of getting a chronic disease. The findings have raised concerns among geneticists, data privacy experts and campaigners over vetting and ethical checks at Biobank.

Set up in 2006 to help researchers investigating diseases, the database contains millions of blood, saliva and urine samples, collected regularly from about 500,000 adult volunteers – along with medical records, scans, wearable device data and lifestyle information.

Approved researchers around the world can pay £3,000 to £9,000 to access records ranging from medical history and lifestyle information to whole genome sequencing data. The resulting research has yielded major medical discoveries and led to Biobank being considered a “jewel in the crown” of British science.

Biobank said it strictly guarded access to its data, only allowing access by bona fide researchers for health-related projects in the public interest. It said this included researchers of all stripes, whether employed by academic, charitable or commercial organisations – including insurance companies – and that “information about data sharing was clearly set out to participants at the point of recruitment and the initial assessment”.

But evidence gathered by the Observer suggests Biobank did not explicitly tell participants it would share data with insurance companies – and made several public commitments not to do so.

When the project was announced, in 2002, Biobank promised that data would not be given to insurance companies after concerns were raised that it could be used in a discriminatory way, such as by the exclusion of people with a particular genetic makeup from insurance.

In an FAQ section on the Biobank website, participants were told: “Insurance companies will not be allowed access to any individual results nor will they be allowed access to anonymised data.” The statement remained online until February 2006, during which time the Biobank project was subject to public scrutiny and discussed in parliament.

The promise was also reiterated in several public statements by backers of Biobank, who said safeguards would be built in to ensure that “no insurance company or police force or employer will have access”.

This weekend, Biobank said the pledge – made repeatedly over four years – no longer applied. It said the commitment had been made before recruitment formally began in 2007 and that when Biobank volunteers enrolled they were given revised information.

This included leaflets and consent forms that contained a provision that anonymised Biobank data could be shared with private firms for “health-related” research, but did not explicitly mention insurance firms or correct the previous assurances…(More)”

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