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The economic potential of African genomics (2)

The economic potential of African genomics (2)

Notable efforts, however, are being made to map the African genetic pool. Institutions and laboratories like 54gene (Nigeria), African Centre of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases, Redeemer’s University (Nigeria), Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine, University of Cape Town (South Africa), African Computational Genomics (TACG) Research group at the MRC/UVRI & LSHTM Uganda Research Unit (Uganda), Africa CDC Institute of Pathogen Genomics (Ethiopia), Centre for Proteomic and Genomic Research (South Africa) and H3Africa-funded Africa Wits-INDEPTH Partnership for Genomics Research (South Africa) are just such initiatives.

In collaboration with hospitals in Nigeria, 54gene, which was established by Abasi Ene-Obong in 2019, aims to sequence the DNA of at least 100,000 samples of spit, blood or body tissue of willing patients, with plans to expand further afield across more African countries. 54gene makes revenue by providing this genetic data to global pharmaceutical firms looking to produce more effective and bespoke drugs.

African genomic data will also reduce the time lag between when new medicines hit the global market and Africans get access to them, often taking more than a decade, after patents have expired or rich countries have moved on to better drugs

African genomic data will also reduce the time lag between when new medicines hit the global market and Africans get access to them, often taking more than a decade, after patents have expired or rich countries have moved on to better drugs. Global genomic data with ample African samples will facilitate a broader and diversified drug-testing process and thus ensure African genomes will be receptive to new drugs as well as their counterparts in the developed world.

Another significant African genomics research effort is by renowned microbiologist Christian Happi at the African Centre of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases (ACEGID) in Nigeria. ACEGID, which has been getting good reviews for its surveillance work on Lassa fever, Ebola and Covid-19, has received more than US$9m in grants and funding from myriad institutions, including the World Bank, evidence of growing global interest.

Led by Segun Fatumo, an assistant professor and genetic epidemiologist, who trained at the University of Cambridge and was part of the team at the Wellcome Sanger Institute in the UK that conducted what is still considered one of the most significant analysis of the African genome yet, studies by the African Computational Genomics Research group at the MRC/UVRI & LSHTM Uganda Research Unit focuses on the genes associated with diseases that frequently ail Africans.

A database of the genetic information of the African population will be invaluable. The Three Million African Genomes (3MAG) project is a major step in this direction but would cost $450 million a year and would take 10 years to complete, according to Ambroise Wonkam, a professor of medical genetics and one of the champions of the endeavour. The Covid-19 pandemic brought to fore the importance of knowhow and resources on the African genome.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) genomic sequencing was crucial to rapidly identifying the coronavirus and developing a robust response towards containing it. Africa’s shortcoming in this regard has been writ large, with the continent accounting for “just 1% of the more than 3.5m Covid-19 sequences carried out to date worldwide.”

The Africa Centre for Disease Control Institute of Pathogen Genomics, US CDC, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Microsoft, Illumina (a genomics sequencing technology firm), and Oxford Nanopore Technologies are collaborating on a US$100m 4-year initiative to “integrate pathogen genomics and bioinformatics into public health surveillance, outbreak investigations, and improved disease control and prevention in Africa.”

Perhaps the foremost African genomics research endeavour is the Human Heredity and Health in Africa (H3Africa) programme sponsored by the African Society of Human Genetics founded by Charles Rotimi, the scientific director at America’s National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI).

Read also: The economic potential of African genomics (1)

It is supported by the UK-based Wellcome Trust and the American National Institutes of Health (NIH). H3Africa, which is headquartered in Cape Town, South Africa, but has sites across Africa is enabling African scientists do genomics research on African populations in Africa.

“Most of H3Africa’s projects (roughly three dozen or so) fall under the so-called capacity-building [viz.] establishing collaborative research centres; biorepositories (in Uganda, Nigeria and South Africa); a coordinating centre; ethical, legal and social implications (ELSI) research projects; an informatics network; and bioinformatics training programmes (LeMieux, 2021).”

In the Africa Wits-INDEPTH Partnership for Genomics Research in South Africa, for instance, funding by H3Africa was used for a “transcontinental study on genetic and environmental contributions to cardiometabolic diseases and traits in Ghana, Burkina Faso, Kenya, and South Africa (LeMieux, 2021).”

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