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New forum to lobby for genomics in Africa
James Njoroge

A group of scientists and government officials from seven African countries have agreed to set up an organisation to lobby their governments for more funds for biotechnology-related research, particularly in genomics.

The new organisation, known as the African Genome Policy Forum, is intended to help Africa catch up with developed countries in boosting genomics research and applying its results to fields such as health care.

A governing committee has been set up that includes Caj Orjioke, the permanent secretary of the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology in Nigeria, and Simon Langat, senior secretary of the National Council of Science and Technology, Kenya.

Members of the committee, who represent Kenya, South Africa, Egypt, Uganda, Nigeria, Ghana and Tanzania, have agreed to approach their respective governments to explore ways of increasing funding for genome-related research. They will report back to the forum before the end of this year.

The committee will also spearhead the drafting of a proposal to establish regional centres of excellence in genomics research in Africa, which will be presented to the African Union (AU).

Such regional centres of excellence would be expected to harmonise scientific research in Africa while avoiding a duplication of research effort, a common feature in the continent.

“The challenge now is for African governments to pool their resources together and put up regional institutions,” says Onesmo Ole MoiYoi, director of the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology, in Nairobi, and one of Africa’s foremost molecular biologists.

“When this is done, individuals who are highly gifted can come back (to Africa from abroad) and work in these institutions where they can grow professionally and make contributions in terms of seeking solutions to problems in Africa.”

In order to persuade politicians to allocate more resources to genomics, the committee is expected to base its case on the economic value of the findings of such research in areas such as pharmacogenetics, disease diagnosis and the DNA sequencing of parasites.

The African Genome Policy Forum will bring together a cross-section of individuals from governments, media, non-governmental organisations, research institutions and healthcare managers in both conventional and traditional medicine. It will also set up an Internet-based discussion forum.

To help launch the initiative, Genome Canada, Ontario, a not-for-profit funding and information resource on genomics in Canada, has offered to contribute CND$10 million (US$6.3 million) in what Peter Singer, the Director of the University of Toronto Joint Centre for Bioethics, says is a long-term effort “to ensure developing countries do not lose out in genomics technology like they did in the green revolution and information technology.”

The agreement to set up the forum came at the end of a week-long course, which included participants from the seven African nations, on genomics and public health policy held in Nairobi, Kenya, last week. The course was organised jointly by the Toronto Centre and the Africa Centre for Technology Studies.

“Despite the much potential in genomics in developing countries, inequalities in global health remain the greatest ethical challenge to them,” says Singer. “Developed countries should now bring capital to help poor nations develop genomics.”

Similar courses are to be held later this year in India, China and Latin American countries, where platforms similar to the African Genome Policy Forum will be formed to influence decision making in their respective governments.

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