African Union mulls harmonized biosafety system framework

By Nkechi Isaac

July 17, 2019

The African Union (AU) is looking at the possibility of harmonizing biosafety regulations to ensure more effective handling of biotechnology applications in its 55 member-states.

The issue ranked top on the agenda at the just-concluded training for African biosafety regulators in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, that was organized by the AU and its Development Agency, NEPAD, to address genome editing and review the 2018 United Nations (UN) biodiversity conference.

One offshoot of the training was establishing the African Union Biosafety Regulators Forum (AU-BRF), with Nigeria’s Dr. Rufus Ebegba emerging as its interim chairman.

The five-member interim steering committee — comprising Nigeria representing West Africa; Mozambique representing Southern Africa; Uganda, East Africa; Gabon, Central Africa and Mauritania, North Africa — is mandated to foster development of biosafety regulatory systems and tools and improve their access and utilization by the AU member-states.

It has the specific objective of coordinating and strengthening ongoing biosafety initiatives in order to harmonize regulatory practices and promote cooperation and mutual recognition of biosafety regulatory decisions, among other goals.

The AU took a firm stand in support of the responsible application of modern biotechnology at the 2018 UN Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP CBD) in Sharm El Sheik, Egypt, stressing Africa’s intention to adopt safe technology to boost its socio-economic development.

Ebegba, who is the director-general of the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA), said the need arose to have a harmonized system to strengthen biotechnology application within the member-states because some African countries still have very weak regulatory instruments while others have none in place at all.

“The issue of biosafety is still nascent in most African countries and I just mentioned that one of the challenges is inadequate regulatory systems in the countries. We realized that some African countries do not have a legal framework and the institutional arrangement is also very weak,” Ebegba said.

“So, one of the challenges the forum would like to address is the issue of working with the African Union to ensure that countries are able to adopt the legal administrative mechanisms to drive the issue of biosafety. And apart from that we will also like to look at the possibility of having a harmonized biosafety regulatory system in the African continent so those countries that have weak legal framework would be able to use the African Union platform to assist them to ensure that their products are adequately accessed for risk-free,” he continued.

“For now, all African countries believe in the need for biotechnology products and that its activities should be regulated and the issue of biosafety is very strong in the minds of all the continents. So, the zeal for countries to have strong regulatory system is very much visible,” he said.

Speaking on lessons learned from the 2018 UN CBD conference and AU’s preparations for the upcoming 2020 CBD in China, Ebegba cited Africa’s major achievement as the ability to speak with one voice, describing the lesson on collaboration as very important. He said Africa would build on what had been achieved to ensure the continent adequately participates in the 2020 COP MOP.

Dr. Roda Nuvunga Luis, a member of the committee, said a major objective of the AU Biosafety Regulators Forum is to assist African countries in developing a strong legal framework that would benefit the countries at the same level.

“For the continent, this forum is extremely important at the present stage of modern biotechnology at a global level because the discussion and the decisions made were done in a way to enhance the current biosafety regulation in the areas of emerging technologies such as gene drive and genome editing,” she said. “It was clear that the African countries have an urgent need to enhance regulatory framework by engaging themselves in addressing the issues of emerging technologies.

“We are doing well in terms of capacity building; we are quite well in terms of regulation. That is why the AU having one voice is so important. We still have too much to do in terms of facilities for research and product development that will lead to trade (ex: laboratories).”

Speaking on AU’s preparations for the next COP MOP in China, Luis, who is also coordinator of Mozambique’s biosafety regulatory body (GIIBS), said having one voice is the way forward. A unified stance will serve to attract the private sector to invest in the modern biotechnology sector while simultaneously allowing African scientists to use biotechnology tools in their labs for research that could benefit both the world and Africans, such as employing gene drives to control malaria supporting agricultural crops like cotton.

In the same vein, Dr. Olalekan Akinbo, senior program officer/biosafety for NEPAD/ABNE, said the AU-BRF would help Africa to have a voice at all international reformation tables on the issue of biosafety and a harmonized representation as Africans.

“The establishment of the AU-BRF means that regulatory authorities in Africa now have a voice as one group that can speak on behalf of the 55 member-states in one voice. It is also an indicator or an idea to help those biosafety regulatory bodies that are one-man armies to be strengthened. It will be a recognized organization within the African Union structure of how things must be done,” he said.

Akinbo pointed out that the biosafety group, which is being run under the integrated vector management platform (IVM) within the continental umbrella, can speak to governments for more efforts on biosafety functionality in the member-states. The group’s functionality is very critical and important for better representation of Africa in one voice at the negotiation table, especially in coming up with regulations on emerging technologies, he noted.