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[STELLENBOSCH, South Africa] A leading South African judge has warned of the possible emergence of a ‘genetic apartheid’, arguing that the scientific advances of genetic research have created the spectre of a ‘genetic underclass’ that is vulnerable to exploitation and discrimination.

And the South African minister of arts, culture, science and technology, Ben Ngubane, has appealed to genetic researchers in Africa to increase their collaborative efforts in order prevent the so-called 'digital divide' being followed by a similar divide in genetic research and its technological applications.

Both warnings were made during a three-day conference this week organised by the Human Sciences Research Council, the South African Academy of Science, and the Sustainability Institute.

Held at a wine estate north of Cape Town, the conference drew together about 350 scientists, sociologists, policy makers and educators to debate the implications for Africa of research into the human genome.

South African Constitutional Court Judge Albie Sachs, who was at the forefront of the anti-apartheid movement, urged delegates to consider the ethical implications of genetic research. These included the difficult issue of how communities who provide genetic or other material to researchers should share the benefits of any commercial products arising from the research.

“Our continent has historically provided raw material and even human beings to other continents. Can we afford to [continue to be] universal donors, and universal recipients of what is made by others?” he asked.

Referring, for example, to the issues raised by the case of the Khoisan (bushmen), who have recently reached an agreement with the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research over the use of an appetite suppressant obtained from a local cactus (see South African tribe seals benefit-sharing deal, 10 January 2003) he asked: “How can we be sure that the knowledge gained is shared in a way that truly gives back to their community, and to South Africa?”

Ngubane, who opened the conference, appealed to scientists and educators to collaborate or risk seeing Africa left behind the industrialised world when it came to genetic research and its applications.

“The threat of a second divide — after the digital divide — increasingly separating the haves from the have-nots, looms in genetic studies and technologies,” Ngubane said. “We in the developing world have a strong incentive to be active rather than passive participants in these new areas of science and technology.”

This, he argued, would require joint, concerted action by all elements of government and the research community. Ngubane added that this would mean a "smarter" use of funds, concentrating research efforts at tertiary institutions and developing a closer working relationship between academia and industry.

"We cannot afford independent silos to be set up, nor can egos and personal agendas prevent us from establishing the kinds of centres of excellence and capacity-building programmes that are needed to enable us to emulate the performance of Brazil, India and China in the new biological areas," he said.

Ngubane’s plea for greater collaboration between African researchers was echoed by one of South Africa’s leading HIV/AIDS researchers, Hoosen Coovadia, professor of paediatrics at the University of Natal in Durban, who said it was often easier to forge collaborative links with overseas researchers than it was with his local counterparts.

In a separate presentation, a British researcher, Gordan Dougan, told the conference that recent developments in genomic technology meant that African countries now had a unique opportunity to develop their own vaccines needed to immunise their populations against diseases.

Dougan, director of the Centre of Molecular Microbiology and Infection at Imperial College, London, said that such countries should not be “hypnotised” by technology. “Vaccines can be produced with relatively simple technology within five years," he said. Although the initial costs were high, the benefits for the treatment of diseases like malaria and tuberculosis were enormous.

The South African conference was funded by the Wellcome Institute, the WK Kellogg Foundation, the British Council, the Swiss Agency for Development and Co-operation, and the South African Department of Science and Technology.

War in Iraq prevented several international delegates from attending the conference, including the Nobel laureate David Baltimore. Several US speakers who did attend the conference chose to return home immediately after making their presentations.

Related external links:

The Human Genome and Africa Conference
Human Sciences Research Council
The Sustainability Institute