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Genomic research and privacy: A response to Staunton et al.

D W Thaldar, B Townsend


The Protection of Personal Information Act No. 4 of 2013 (POPIA) promises a new dispensation of privacy protection for research participants in South Africa. In a recent article, Staunton et al. proposed that a purposive interpretation of POPIA would allow for the retention of the status quo of broad consent in the context of genomic research. In this response article, we analyse the argument presented by Staunton et al., and conclude that it fails to convince: firstly, because Staunton et al. do not present empirical data for their factual assumption that moving up the consent benchmark is likely to stymie research; secondly, because genomic research does not have a monopoly on the public interest, but shares it with the privacy rights of research participants; and thirdly, because POPIA was designed to promote the protection of privacy, not simply to preserve the status quo as found in existing policy instruments. In contrast to the position advocated by Staunton et al., we suggest that a purposive interpretation of POPIA is aligned with the plain meaning of the statute – namely that specific (not broad) consent is a prerequisite for research on genomic information.

This article, which comments on an article by Staunton et al. (Staunton C, Adams R, Botes M, et al. Safeguarding the future of genomic research in South Africa: Broad consent and the Protection of Personal Information Act No. 4 of 2013. S Afr Med J 2019;109(7):468-470. https://doi.org/10.7196/SAMJ.2019.v109i7.14148), is followed by a letter by Thaldar and Townsend (Privacy rights of human research participants in South Africa must be taken seriously. S Afr Med J 2020;110(3):175-176. https://doi.org/10.7196/SAMJ.2020.v110i3.14450); and a response to the article and letter by Staunton et al. (S Afr Med J 2020;110(3):175-176. https://doi.org/10.7196/SAMJ.2020.v110i3.14450).


Authors' affiliations

D W Thaldar, School of Law, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa

B Townsend, School of Law, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa

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South African Medical Journal 2020;110(3):172-174. DOI:10.7196/SAMJ.2020.v110i3.14431

Article History

Date submitted: 2020-02-26
Date published: 2020-02-26

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