Africa has genetic diversity unmatched by any population in the world, but is on the back foot in taking advantage of genomic technology that enhances economic development.
Rich countries have the lion’s share of this breakthrough technology, with poor countries — many of them in Africa — missing out on the benefits of genomic research that has helped boost public health, notes a new report from the World Health Organization’s Science Council. . WHO).
Genomics is the study of genes and their complex effect on the growth and development of organisms, according to the WHO. Through genomics, genes can be arranged in a specific order or evaluated to reveal patterns in their order. This knowledge allows scientists to manipulate genes to prevent or manage certain diseases, making genomic technology important in improving public health.
Genomic research has been applied to the development of new vaccines, both for HIV and AIDS, and to the investigation of infectious disease outbreaks such as the Ebola virus. In addition, genomics has been applied to plant and animal breeding, legal procedures, and DNA testing.
Rich science, poor access
Citing a combination of weak investment in research and development, limited staff and a lack of infrastructure, weak economies are not reaping the benefits of genomic research, the Science Council found in its first report, published in July 2022.
Established in 2021 by the Director-General of WHO, the Science Council advises on advances in science and technology that can directly improve global health. Its first focus since founding was on genomic research in public health.
“It’s very clear that poor countries don’t have money for research, and they can access data the way other people do – by going to the online database,” said Harold Varmus, chairman of the Science Council. .
As the costs of access to genomic technology decrease, there is an opportunity for developing countries to use genomic tools for more accurate diagnosis, for example for cancer patients, Varmus said, citing testimony from investigators, clinicians and advocacy groups in poor countries for the value of new health care technologies that have emerged from genomic research.
“We think that a national plan in each country that makes clear what goals genomic technology would serve in each country can make the effort affordable and accessible,” he said, adding that countries could use genomics more effectively through national, regional and international research. collaborations.
Poor countries are gaining access to genomics technology much later than rich countries, despite a decline in the costs of creating and expanding these technologies, the Science Council said, recommending advocacy, implementation and cooperation in the adoption of genomics.
Investing in genomics
Despite the commitment of African governments to spend at least 1 percent of their GDP on research and development to increase innovation, productivity and economic growth, Africa must also stimulate the private sector to increase its investment in the same , advised the Economic Commission for Africa. .
According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in a 2021 scientific report, The Race Against Time for Smarter Development, no African country is spending 1 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on research and development. This is despite huge increases in scientific spending in other parts of the world.
Calling for investment in science in the face of growing crises, UNESCO noted that science must become less unequal and more open to all communities.
Dr. Segun Fatumo, associate professor in the Department of Noncommunicable Disease Epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in the United Kingdom, underlined the importance of African governments investing in genomic research. He said Africans are under-represented in genomic studies globally.
“Many African governments are not paying attention to genomic research because they do not see value in the research, while many countries around the world understand the benefit of genomic studies. For example, in the UK we had a study representing 500,000 people while in the US they are talking about 1 million people in a study,” said Fatumo, who is also group leader of the African Computational Genomics Group (TACG) in Medical. Uganda Research Council.
Fatumo believes that the lack of infrastructure and capacity to analyze data is another reason why Africa is underrepresented in genomic research.
Investing in genomics
Dr. Lamech Mwapagha, a senior lecturer and research scientist in the Department of Natural and Applied Sciences at the Namibia University of Science and Technology, agreed that infrastructure is one of the biggest obstacles to Africa benefiting from genomic research.
“The reason why Africa would play second fiddle is not because we have no knowledge. We have the knowledge, but the issue is funding, infrastructure and the lack of scientists with knowledge of genomics,” said Mwapagha, whose research interests include cancer genomics, the human microbiome and cancer.
“Genomics technology can be divided equally because if the opposite is true, then it will be very bad for genomics,” Mwapagha said, adding that given the experience of COVID and vaccine stockpiling in the Global North, it is essential that African scientists share knowledge for purposes such as determining mutations such as Omicron.
“If Botswana and South Africa did not have the right infrastructure, we would not have been able to say that there is a new variant that has emerged,” Mwapagha said. “Genomics technology can and must be shared equally if we are to be able to eliminate some diseases, epidemics and pandemics.”
Image: Segun Fatumo (left) joins an unidentified colleague in a lab session at the Wellcome Sanger Institute in Cambridge, United Kingdom. Photo: Contributed by Segun Fatumo