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The economic potential of African genomics (1)

The Human Genome Project, which took 13 years to complete from 1990 to 2003 was the first successful global effort involving public and private scientists towards sequencing the DNA of the human genome. It had one major shortcoming – an under-representation of the African population in the sampling.

In fact, only about 2 percent of the genomes mapped globally are African. But that is now beginning to change as multinational pharmaceutical firms are scouring the length and breadth of the continent to get their hands on a rich repository of genes.

In this article, I highlight the economics that underpins the various African genomics initiatives currently underway and flag concerns of what could happen if governments do not seize the initiative of mapping the continent’s human genome.

What is genomics and why is it important?

According to the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), genomics is the study of all of a person’s genes (the genome), including interactions of those genes with each other and with the person’s environment. Whether in health or in wealth, genes underpin the human condition, including what ails man.

Genomics enable better and more accurate diagnosis of diseases based on a patient’s genomes, allowing for optimal variations in treatment that are particular to the person. In fact, drugs can be specifically designed to match the genomics of each patient, reducing incidences of drug resistance and adverse reactions.

What is the current state of African genomics?

African DNA does not feature much in global genetics research. In fact, research published in Nature found that 300 million letters of DNA from 910 people of African descent were not found in the reference genome that underlies the basis of modern genetic and genomic research (Nawrat, 2019).

This anomaly is in part due to disinterest by peoples of African descent in the West, where most studies are conducted, owing to historical trauma and mistrust, challenges which are compounded by infrastructural and cultural constraints for the hitherto rare studies conducted on the African continent itself.

Trauma from the enslavement of Africans in America remains rife, despite the abolition of slavery more than 150 years ago. Besides, Africa is not a significant player in the global market for new drugs, which is estimated to be worth $20 billion, with annual growth of as much as 12 percent.

The absence, however, of a key element of human genetic history, creates an in-built handicap to these efforts – a realisation that is beginning to make global pharmaceutical firms pay attention to African genomics for the potential it has to advance groundbreaking discoveries in medicine.

Even so, recent efforts of significance are being driven by Africans themselves, who are leaving lucrative positions abroad to address an anomaly that dates back to colonialism, albeit with Western funding and support. At the moment, they are largely focused on researching diseases mostly found in Africans like sickle cell disease or predominant ones like tuberculosis and stroke, under the aegis of the Western-funded Human Heredity and Health in Africa (H3Africa) initiative, for instance.

Naturally, there is a worry that the increasing support for African genomics research will inevitably perpetuate the continued dependence of African countries on the West, with most of the benefits and knowhow ringfenced to the continent’s detriment. Finished drugs will be sold to African countries at a premium, even as the provenance of the intellectual property is African, a folly oft-repeated across the continent over the years owing to incompetence, corruption, and lax governance.

There are costs to science from scant African genomic data. In 2019, for instance, a “genome-wide analysis of Type 2 diabetes in sub-Saharan African populations [found] a previously unreported gene, Zinc Finger RANBP2-Type Containing 3.” New insights are increasingly being found from African genomic data. This is not surprising. After all, Africa is widely regarded as the cradle of human civilization.

It is from here that the first humans stepped out to begin populating the world. There is still much that we do not know about the human genome owing to the lack of African genetic samples. Notable efforts, however, are being made to map the African genetic pool.

An edited version was first published by the NTU-SBF Centre for African Studies at Nanyang Business School, Singapore. References, figures and tables are in the original article. See link viz. https://www.ntu.edu.sg/cas/news-events/news/details/the-economic-potential-of-african-genomics

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