Investing in genomic research can increase poor countries’ access to rich science

Africa holds genetic diversity unmatched by any other population in the world, but it is on the back foot in benefiting from genomics technology that boosts economic development.

A new report by the World Health Organization’s Science Council finds that poor countries—many of them in Africa—have the lion’s share of this breakthrough technology, along with rich countries that are missing out on the benefits of genomics research that could help boost public health. WHO).

According to the WHO, genomics is the study of genes and their complex effects on the growth and development of organisms. Through genomics, genes can be arranged in a particular order or evaluated to discover patterns in their order. This insight allows scientists to manipulate genes to prevent or manage certain diseases, making genomics technology critical to improving public health.

Genomic research has been applied to the development of new vaccines, such as HIV and AIDS, and to the investigation of infectious disease outbreaks, such as the Ebola virus. Additionally, genomics has been applied to plant and animal breeding, legal proceedings and DNA testing.

Rich science, poor access

Citing a combination of poor investment in research and development, limited human resources and lack of infrastructure, poor economies are not tapping the benefits of genomic research, the Science Council found in its first report published in July 2022.

Established in 2021 by the WHO Director-General, the Science Council advises on advances in science and technology that can directly improve global health. Its first focus after its founding was on genomic research in public health.

“It’s self-evident that poor countries don’t have money for research and that they can go to a database on the Internet and get access to the same data as other people,” said Harold Varmus, president of the Science Council.

As the cost of access to genomic technology falls, developing countries have the opportunity to use genomic tools for more accurate diagnosis, for example for cancer patients, Varmus said, citing testimony from researchers, physicians and advocacy groups in poor countries. New technologies for healthcare that have emerged from genomic research.

“We think that a national plan in each country, which clarifies the purposes for which genomic technology will serve each country, can be cost-effective and achievable,” he said, adding that countries can use genomics more effectively through national, regional and international research. can use collaborations.

While the costs of establishing and expanding these technologies will decrease, poor countries will have long-term access to genomics technology, the Science Council recommends advocacy, implementation, and support for the adoption of genomics.

Investing in genomics

Despite commitments by African governments to spend at least 1 percent of their GDP on research and development to boost innovation, productivity and economic growth, Africa also needs to encourage the private sector to increase investment in it, the Economic Commission for Africa has advised. .

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) 2021 science 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 science spending in other parts of the world.

Calling for investment in science in the face of a growing crisis, UNESCO noted that science must be made less unequal and open to all communities.

Associate Professor of the Department of Non-Communicable Disease Epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in the United Kingdom. Segun Fatumo stressed the importance of African governments investing in genomic research. He said Africans are underrepresented in genomic studies worldwide.

“Many African governments are not paying attention to genomic research because they do not see the value in the research, while many countries around the world understand the benefits of genomic studies. For example, in the UK we have a study that represents 500,000 people, while in the US they talk about one million people in one study,” said Fatumo, who is also the group head of the African Computational Genomics (TACG) Research Group at the Medical Research Council in Uganda.

Fatumo believes that lack of infrastructure and capacity to analyze data is another reason why Africa is underrepresented in genomics research.

Investing in genomics

Dr. Senior Lecturer and Research Scientist, Department of Natural and Applied Sciences, Namibia University of Science and Technology. Lamech Mwapagah agreed that infrastructure is the biggest barrier to Africa benefiting from genomics research.

“The reason Africa is playing second fiddle is not because we lack knowledge. We have the knowledge but the issue is lack of budget, infrastructure and scientists with knowledge of genomics,” said Mwapaga, whose research interests include cancer genomics, human microbiome and cancer.

“Genomics technology can be shared equally because if the opposite is true, it will be very bad for genomics,” Mwapaga said, noting the experience of Covid and the stockpiling of vaccines in the Global North, sharing is important for African scientists. knowledge for the purpose of determining mutations such as omicrons.

“If we didn’t have the right infrastructure in place in Botswana and South Africa, we wouldn’t be able to say that there is a new version,” Mwapaga said. “Genomics technology can be shared equally and if we can we will be able to eliminate some diseases, epidemics and epidemics.”

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


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