Nicola Mulder, Head, pan-African Bioinformatic Network -- H3ABioNet.Credit: Nicola Mulder

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An ambitious plan to establish eight Genomics Centres of Excellence across Africa aims to transform access to cutting-edge technologies, reshaping the response to some of the continent’s most pressing health challenges.

The preliminary plan was presented at the 14th International Congress of Human Genetics in Cape Town, South Africa.

The strategy would address three priorities – pathogen genomic surveillance to boost readiness for the next pandemic, genomics-informed precision public health to deliver optimal treatment; and development and training of next-generation genomics researchers. Given that existing global genomic datasets largely exclude the continent’s extremely diverse populations, new expertise is expected to deliver pioneering disease research programmes.

Nicola Mulder, head of the pan-African bioinformatic network H3ABioNet told delegates said “a major expansion of African capacity in genomics technologies will address the burden of disease and improve the health and wellbeing of nations across Africa, and throughout the world.”

A coordinating hub will oversee the eight Centres of Excellence, located within the Africa Centres for Disease Control. Each centre will be partnered with a relevant academic institution, as well as a public health facility, to ensure sustainability.

Charles Rotimi, board member of the African Society of Human Genetics, and director of the US Center for Research on Genomics and Global Health, said there would be an open call to all African countries to apply to host a centre, and there was a plan to avoid adding more capacity to already well-resourced nations.

The programme is estimated to cost US$200 million, and will begin with two pilot centres. Budget estimates are US$2 million per centre, per year, excluding staffing costs. The high-cost strategy will require support from multiple different sources globally, including African governments. But in the long term, they argued, the savings in health care costs would be substantial.

Among the short-term outcomes are translational genomics for noncommunicable diseases, specifically interventions such as Sickle Cell Disease, for example, as well as others that specifically affect African populations. Others include next-generation newborn screening and analysis for rapid and optimal treatment, reduction of adverse drug events, and improved overall pandemic preparedness.

In addition are improved development and vetting of chemotherapy agents in African populations, population-specific pharmacogenomics to guide optimal drug selection and dosage, along with a better understanding of the genetics that underline the high prevalence of cardiovascular disease on the continent.

“The mortality rate of African children with Sickle Cell Disease is between 50% and 90%, and almost all affected children die before they turn five. Genomics offers us hope for a future SCD-free Africa, thanks to newborn screening which will enable early preventive action to decrease associated infections and improve quality of life. But gene-based treatments are also possible, delivered in vivo in a single treatment,” Mulder said.

Raj Ramesar, professor and head of the Division of Human Genetics at the University of Cape Town, described such developments in the field of human genetics as “remarkable.”

“Following on the successes of the Human Heredity and Health in Africa (H3Africa) Initiative, we need to keep up the momentum, leveraging the genuine international commitment to assist us in developing parts of the world, while also being sensitive to issues of sovereignty and ownership,” he added.