Science & Technology

Data democracy: WHO bats for passing on genomics tech to developing world

Inaccessible tech not justifiable; Focus required on inadequate finances, lab infra, highly trained personnel

By DTE Staff
Published: Wednesday 13 July 2022

Access to genomic technologies needs to be expanded, especially for low- and middle-income countries (LMIC), according to a report by the World Health Organization’s Science Council. 

The report argued that it is not ethically or scientifically justifiable for countries with fewer resources to gain late access to such technologies. The council issued its first report on accelerating access to genomics for global health July 12, 2022. 

The field of genomics uses biochemistry, genetics and molecular biology methods to understand and use biological information in deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and ribonucleic acid (RNA). 

This information benefits medicine and public health — especially during the COVID-19 pandemic — as well as agriculture, biological research and more. 

The report said that shortfalls in financing, laboratory infrastructure, materials and highly trained personnel need to be addressed to expand access to genomic technologies. 

Genomic technologies drive some ground-breaking research today, said WHO Chief Scientist Soumya Swaminathan. 

The chief scientist said:

The benefits will not be fully realised unless deployed worldwide. Only through equity can science reach its full potential impact and improve health for everyone, everywhere. 

There are several tools to make genomic technologies more affordable, like tiered pricing, sharing of intellectual property rights for low-cost versions and cross-subsidisation, whereby profits in one area are used to fund another are some of them. 

The Science Council was established in April 2021 by WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. It is comprised of 9 leading scientists and public health experts from around the world. 

The council advises Ghebreyesus on high-priority issues and advances in science and technology that could directly improve global health. It identified genomics as the focus of its first study, given the significant implications for public health.

“Genomics can make enormous contributions to human health, from surveying populations for infectious agents — such as the virus that causes COVID-19 — to predicting and treating a wide variety of diseases, such as cancers and developmental disorders,” said Professor Harold Varmus, chair for the council.

Varmus is a Nobel Laureate and former United States National Institutes of Health director.

The report recommended addressing four themes: Advocacy, implementation, collaboration and associated ethical, legal and social issues. 

Advocacy for genomics is needed to persuade governments, commercial and non-commercial organisations, academic institutions and others of genomic technologies’ medical, scientific and economic benefits.

The report also recommended WHO create a Genomics Committee to take forward the recommendations and monitor their applications.

The report followed WHO’s 10-year strategy for genomic surveillance of pathogens. Genomic surveillance has played a crucial role in the global COVID-19 response, with countries like South Africa able to make essential contributions in detecting variants due to their capacities in this area. 

Recent data from WHO showed that major investments made during the COVID-19 pandemic led to an increase in the percentage of countries able to conduct genomic surveillance between March 2021 and January 2022. 

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