Low prices to encourage consumers to order its WGS service is one way Veritas co-founder and genetics pioneer George Church hopes to sequence 150,000 genomes by 2021
By announcing an annotated whole-genome sequencing (WGS) service to consumers for just $599, Veritas Genetics is establishing a new price benchmark for medical laboratories and gene testing companies. Prior to this announcement in July, Veritas priced its standard myGenome service at $999.
“There is no more comprehensive genetic test than your whole genome,” Rodrigo Martinez, Veritas’ Chief Marketing and Design Officer, told CNBC. “So, this is a clear signal that the whole genome is basically going to replace all other genetic tests. And this [price drop] gets it closer and closer and closer.”
Pathologists and clinical laboratory managers will want to watch to see if Veritas’ low-priced, $599 whole-genome sequencing becomes a pricing standard for the genetic testing industry. Meanwhile, the new price includes not only the sequencing, but also an expert analysis of test results that includes information on more than 200 conditions, Veritas says.
“The focus in our industry is shifting from the cost of sequencing genomes to interpretation capabilities and that’s where our secret sauce is,” said Veritas CEO Mirza Cifric in a news release. “We’ve built and deployed a world class platform to deliver clinically-actionable insights at scale.” The company also says it “achieved this milestone primarily by deploying internally-developed machine learning and AI [artificial intelligence] tools as well as external tools—including Google’s DeepVariant—and by improving its in-house lab operations.”
The myGenome service offers 30x WGS, which Veritas touts in company documentation as the “gold standard” for sequencing, compared to the less-precise 0.4x WGS.
The myGenome service is available only in the United States.
Will Whole-Genome Sequencing Replace Other Genetic Tests?
Veritas was co-founded by George Church, PhD, a pioneer of personal genomics through his involvement with the Harvard Personal Genome Project at Harvard Medical School. In a press release announcing the launch of myGenome in 2016, Veritas decried its system as “the world’s first whole genome for less than $1,000, including interpretation and genetic counseling.”
“Companies like 23andMe that are based on genotyping technology basically opened the market over the last decade,” Martinez explained in an interview with WTF Health. “They’ve done an incredible job of getting awareness in the general population.”
However, he goes on to say, “In genotyping technology, you are looking at very specific points of the genome, less than half of one percent, a very small amount.”
Martinez says Veritas is sequencing all 6.4 billion letters of the genome. And, with the new price point, “we’re closer to realizing that seismic shift,” he said in the news release.
“This is the inflection point,” Martinez told CNBC. “This is the point where the curve turns upward. You reach a critical mass when you are able to provide a product that gives value at a specific price point. This is the beginning of that. That’s why it’s seismic.”
Payment Models Not Yet Established by Government, Private Payers
However, tying WGS into personalized medicine that leads to actionable diagnoses may not be easy. Robin Bennett, PhD (hon.), a board certified senior genetic counselor and Professor of Medicine and Medical Genetics at UW School of Medicine, told CNBC, “[Healthcare] may be moving in that direction, but the payment for testing and for services, it hasn’t moved in the preventive direction. So, unless the healthcare system changes, these tests may not be as useful because … the healthcare system hasn’t caught up to say, ‘Yes, we support payment for this.’”
“Insurers are looking for things where, if you get the information, there’s something you can do with it and that both the provider and the patient are willing and able to use that information to do things that improve their health,” Phillips told CNBC. “Insurers are very interested in using genetic testing for prevention, but we need to . . . demonstrate that the information will be used and that it’s a good trade-off between the benefits and the costs.”
Sequencing for Free If You Share Your Data
Church may have an answer for that as well—get biopharmaceutical companies to foot the bill. Though Veritas’ new price for their myGenome service is significantly lower than before, it’s not free. That’s what Nebula Genomics, a start-up genetics company in Massachusetts co-founded by Church, offers people willing to share the data derived from their sequencing. To help biomedical researchers gather data for their studies, Nebula provides free or partially-paid-for whole-genome sequencing to qualified candidates.
“Nebula will enable individuals to get sequenced at much lower cost through sequencing subsidies paid by the biopharma industry,” Church told BioSpace. “We need to bring the costs of personal genome sequencing close to zero to achieve mass adoption.”
Dark Daily reported on Nebula’s program in “Nebula Genomics Offers FREE Whole Genome Sequencing to Customers Willing to Allow Their Data Be Used by Researchers for Drug Development,” January 7, 2019.
So, will lower-priced whole-genome sequencing catch on? Perhaps. It’s certainly popular with everyday people who want to learn their ancestry or predisposition to certain diseases. How it will ultimately affect clinical laboratories and pathologists remains to be seen, but one thing is certain—WGS is here to stay.