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

By Busani Bafana

August 23, 2022

Africa holds genetic diversity unrivaled for any population in the world but it is on the back foot in benefitting from genomics technology that increases economic development.

Rich countries have the lion’s share of this breakthrough technology, with poor countries — many of them in Africa  — losing out on the benefits from genomics research that has helped boost public health,  notes  a new report by the Science Council of the World Health Organization (WHO).

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

Genomic research has been applied in the development of new vaccines, such as for HIV and AIDS, and investigating infectious disease outbreaks such as the Ebola virus. In addition, genomics have been applied in plant and animal breeding, in legal proceedings and in DNA testing.

Rich science, poor access

Citing a combination of poor investment in research and development, limited personnel 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 could directly improve global health. Its first focus since its establishment was on genomic research in public health.

“It is pretty self-evident that poor countries do not have the money for research and they can get access to data the way other people do — by going to the database on the internet,” opined Harold Varmus, chairman of the Science Council.

With the costs of accessing genomic technology decreasing, there is an opportunity for developing countries to use genomic tools for more accurate diagnosis, for instance for cancer patients,  Varmus said, citing testimony from investigators, clinicians and advocacy groups in poor countries on the value of new technologies for health care that have emerged from genomic research.

“We think that a national plan in each country, which makes clear what purposes genomic technology would serve each country, could make the effort affordable and achievable,” he said, adding that countries can use genomics more effectively through national, regional and international research collaborations.

Poor countries gain access to the genomics technology long after rich countries despite a decline in the costs of establishing and expanding these technologies, the  Science Council said, recommending advocacy, implementation and collaboration in the adoption of genomics.

Investing in genomics

Despite a commitment by African governments to spend at least 1 percent of their GDP on research and development to increase innovation, productivity and economic growth, Africa also needs to incentivize 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 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 a huge growth in science spending in other parts of the world.

Calling for investment in science in the face of the growing crises, UNESCO noted that science should be made less unequal and more open to all communities.

Dr. Segun Fatumo, associate professor in the Department of Non-Communicable Disease Epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in the United Kingdom, underscored the importance of African governments to invest in genomic research. He said Africans are under-represented in genomic studies globally.

“A lot of African governments are not paying attention to genomic research because  they do not see value in research, whereas a lot of countries around the world understand the benefit of genomic studies. For example, in UK we have had a study representing 500,000 people while in the US they talk of  1 million people in one study,” said Fatumo, who is also the group leader of the  African Computational Genomics (TACG) Research Group at the Medical Research Council in Uganda.

Fatumo believes the lack of infrastructure and capacity to analyze data is another reason Africa is underrepresented in genomics 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, concurred that infrastructure is one of the biggest obstacles to Africa benefiting from genomics research.

“The reason why Africa would play second fiddle is not that we do not have the knowledge. We have the knowledge but the issue is funding, infrastructure and the shortage of scientists with knowledge of genomics,” said Mwapagha, whose research interests include cancer genomics, the human microbiome and cancer.

“Genomics technology can be shared equally because if the opposite is true then it will be very bad for genomics,” said Mwapagha, adding that given the experience of COVID and the Global North’s hoarding of vaccines, it is critical for African scientists to share their knowledge for such purposes as determining mutations like 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 come up,” Mwapagha said. “Genomics technology can and  should be equally shared if we are to be able to eliminate some diseases, epidemics and pandemics.”

Image: Segun Fatumo (left) joins an unidentified colleague in a laboratory session at the Wellcome Sanger Institute in Cambridge, United Kingdom. Photo: Contributed by Segun Fatumo