• Friday, September 29, 2023
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The economic potential of African genomics (4)

The economic potential of African genomics (4)

African countries can adapt the Singapore model – Singapore is a kindred spirit of sorts. In October 2019, Cell magazine published a study of the “world’s largest whole-genome sequencing (WGS) analysis of Asian populations” which involved about 5,000 Singaporeans.

Singapore’s main three ethnic groups – the Chinese, Malay and Indians – made it an ideal market study. In December 2019, Nature published the first Asia-wide genome mapping study by GenomeAsia 100K, a consortium of Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, MedGenome US/India, and Macrogen Inc., Korea, which analysed the genomes of 1,739 people from 64 countries.

Singapore’s National Precision Medicine (NPM) strategy is a 10-year “whole-of-government effort to establish the necessary frameworks and infrastructure to realise precision medicine on a national scale, enhance disease prevention and to identify the right treatments for the right individuals and groups.”

While I am not suggesting that ongoing privately-funded genomics research efforts in Africa should be nationalised, there is a need for state oversight and co-ordination to ensure that the ownership of African genomic data remains in African hands

African countries looking to beef up genomics research have in Singapore a viable model to follow. In the Singaporean case, for instance, the authorities centralised the NPM effort in an entity called Precision Health Research, Singapore (PRECISE).

While I am not suggesting that ongoing privately-funded genomics research efforts in Africa should be nationalised, there is a need for state oversight and co-ordination to ensure that the ownership of African genomic data remains in African hands.


African DNA does not feature much in global genetics research. In fact, genomic data of African origin constitute less than 2 percent of global genomewide association studies (GWAS).

This tallies with the fact that Africa is not a major player in the global pharmaceutical industry, especially for new drugs.

However, this shortcoming is impeding the growth of the $20 billion global market for new drugs as African DNA has been proven to contain invaluable insights for the development of medicines that will benefit all of humanity.

The global pharmaceutical industry has already taken steps to tap into the huge potential of African genomics. A database of the genetic information of the African population will be invaluable.

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 identify the coronavirus and develop a robust response towards containing it.

In fact, the issue is now no longer about how African genomics is important or its huge economic potential but rather to ensure that an inequity is not fixed via another inequity.

The history of colonial exploitation and the business model that sustained it should not be repeated with African genomics research.

To ensure that this is not the case, a great deal of investment would be required from the firms and governments of African countries and their international partners.

There are, however, significant downsides to this global effort owing to lacklustre interest by African governments and firms. Western institutions remain the main champions and may eventually be forced to take ownership of data if African apathy continues.

A dearth of political will, scarce funding for research and development, limited local supporting infrastructure, and lack of human resources are impeding progress.

Apart from pre-existing power and telecommunications infrastructure constraints African genomic data would ultimately reside in foreign-owned local servers without investment by African governments and firms in the continent’s cloud storage infrastructure.

A global consortium that allows for the seamless sharing and analysis of genomic data from clinical records will ultimately leave Africa at the mercy of developed countries yet again.

Read also: The economic potential of African genomics (3)

To the global pharmaceutical industry a person’s genetic data is worth $1,900. When combined with medical records its value can go up to as much as $6,400 each, according to research on the United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS) by EY, a global consulting firm.

The indicative market value of the integrated genetic and clinical data of the estimated 55 million patient records in the UK NHS database could be as much as $6.4 billion per annum, with benefits of about US$5.8bn to patients yearly, EY estimates. African firms and governments have a huge opportunity on their hands.

True, African firms like 54gene in Nigeria are beginning to build profitable business models. But these are largely independent initiatives with little surveillance and governance by African authorities. There are viable models that African governments can look at.

I recommend Singapore’s National Precision Medicine (NPM) strategy, which if emulated by African governments, provides a comprehensive framework to regulate and support the work of private genomic firms like 54gene while at the same time ensuring that the scientific know-how remains in African hands.

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.