An Afghan Refugee Biobank?

An open letter to Ambassador Lee Wolosky, Clearview.AI's attorney, and the Biden Administration

The news that President Joe Biden selected Lee Wolosky to work on the Afghan resettlement project is (perhaps) welcome.

Mr. Wolosky is a partner for Jenner & Block and represents Clearview.AI, the facial recognition company I cofounded. Wolosky also serves on the advisory board of Clearview. I had no involvement in either decision.

Wolosky has already had a very impressive career at controversial law firms Boies Schiller Flexner and Paul, Weiss though I worry it is more than a tad too neocon and well, very pro-Israel.

Given that Clearview has been targeted by Israeli firm AnyVision and hacked by the Emirati firm SpiderSilk I personally wouldn’t support Wolosky on team but then the Clearview’s management may well know more than I do.

Will he do a good job serving the Biden Administration in settling the Afghans? We shall see.

Per Reuters:

Wolosky will serve in the White House Counsel's Office and will work with officials with the National Security Council and other top administration aides to provide legal expertise on resettlement issues, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The United States has evacuated tens of thousands of Afghans from their home country during Biden's withdrawal from that country after 20 years of war, a hasty pullout that has drawn sharp criticism.

I recently wrote about the Vietnamese refugee program which my grandfather ran. Now let us turn to what’s to be done with the Afghan refugee program.

We need “extreme vetting,” to borrow a phrase, to find out what is going on. That means facial recognition. We need to know who is coming and going in this country and those of our allies. Fortunately CBP is working on that by increasing the budget of companies like Clearview.Ai. They should do more of this. We need to know as much as possible as quickly as possible on everyone entering the West from problematic countries.

Regrettably the well intentioned efforts to delete photos of Afghans from the Internet has made doing the sorts of reasonable background checks that companies like Clearview do difficult (though not impossible as many of those photos may well have already been scrapped).

We also need genomics. We spent $300 million a day in Afghanistan during our occupation, according to President Joe Biden. It currently costs less than a $100 to sequence a person. We could sequence every single Afghan refugee for $10M or so if you assume there are 100,000 or so Afghans being processed. [Update at 5:09 AM at 09/13/2021: I was off by a factor of 10.]

Afghanistan offers a natural experiment if the journal of Molecular Genetics & Genomic Medicine is to be believed. It’s a place where cousin marriage is rampant.

In Afghanistan, the prevalence of cousin marriages is estimated to be 46.2%. The prevalent type of cousin marriage is first cousin marriage (27.8%), followed by double first cousin marriage (6.9%), second cousin (5.8%), and third cousin (3.9%) (Saify & Saadat, 2012). Such marriages became the main reason to get genetically disabled children. International research groups working on genetic characterization of inherited diseases focus on such large consanguineous families with genetic disorders. In the current article, we tried to compile all the disease‐associated mutations reported in Afghanistan human populations which can be further used for developing personalized medicine.

Extensive literature search related to genetic disorders/problems was carried out, comprising of all published articles from 1973 to 2019.

Solving the problem of cousin marriage for the Afghans could be replicated elsewhere in the world, something an Afghan biobank could reveal.

The conclusion from Molecular Genetics & Genomic Medicine is worth repeating in full:

We have provided an overview of genetic disorders reported in the Afghan population. The prevalence of genetic disorders is increasing year by year as a result of high consanguinity, the ongoing war for four decades, and chronic exposure to various emissions in the environment. The percentage of genetic disorders increases briskly if such circumstances persist. Awareness about the negative effects of consanguinity and the dangerous effects of various pollutants on the incoming progeny should be generated in such communities. The government must establish diagnostic and rehabilitation centers for reducing the impacts of genetic disorders. Risk families are advised to carry out early detection, diagnosis, and intervention to prevent death or disability, and allow children to grow normally. The Afghan population is in dire need of health attention.

Cousin marriage is very common in primitive societies and for failed states or certain immigrant groups.

Might an Afghan biobank help? It may well.