The African continent is making another leap in technological innovation, and this time in health care, going from clinics with little more than a stethoscope to full-fledged genome sequencing laboratories.
In the last decade, countries like Uganda and Kenya have made great strides in establishing e-health programs and infrastructure. These initiatives have primarily been made possible through foreign aid and investment, but some countries are now starting to develop their own indigenous capability.
One such country is Rwanda, which in 2015 established the world’s first fully-fledged genome sequencing laboratory. The Kigali lab is part of the Rwanda Biomedical Centre (RBC) and is equipped with state-of-the-art technology, including next-generation sequencing (NGS) machines.
The lab was established with the help of US-based nonprofit organization HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, which has been working with the Rwandan government since 2011 to build capacity in genomic research.
The lab is already making an impact, having sequenced the genomes of several hundred Rwandan children with rare genetic diseases. The data generated is being used to improve the diagnosis and treatment of these conditions.
The lab also works on genomic studies of cancer, infectious diseases, and agricultural pests.
Now, Angola is stealing headlines regarding health care after nearly three decades of brutal civil war that devastated the country’s infrastructure.
The country has recently opened Africa’s first genomic medicine center, which will offer whole-genome sequencing (WGS) to Angolans. The center is a joint venture between the Angolan government and US-based company Veritas Genetics.
The center will be located in the capital, Luanda, and was expected to be fully operational by 2019, until the pandemic struck in 2020, pushing back the timeline.
The center will offer WGS at a significantly lower price than what is currently available in developed countries. For example, the cost of sequencing a person’s genome in the U.S. is around $1,000, while in Angola, it will be somewhere under $600.
This is made possible by using a new, portable sequencing machine developed by Veritas Genetics, which can be operated without the need for highly trained personnel.
The machine, called the MinION, is about the size of a laptop and can sequence a genome in just over an hour.
The Angolan government hopes the center will help boost the country’s health care system and make it a leading force in genomic medicine in Africa.
The center is just one part of a larger effort to develop Angola’s health care system, which includes the construction of new hospitals and clinics, as well as the training of medical personnel.
It is hoped that this will eventually help to reduce the country’s high infant mortality rate, which currently stands at around 5 percent.
While Angola and Rwanda are leading the way in genomic medicine, other countries are not far behind. South Africa, for example, has a number of genome sequencing facilities, including the recently opened Southern African Genomic Centre for Disease Control.
The center is a joint venture between the South African government and the Wellcome Sanger Institute, a world-renowned genomics research center based in the U.K.
The center is equipped with state-of-the-art sequencing technology and will be used to sequence the genomes of patients with rare diseases, as well as those with cancer and infectious diseases.
Obstacles & Corruption
With so many strides, why do Africans still consider the U.S. or Europe health care destinations?
The simple answer is that the infrastructure is not currently in place to provide adequate health care to the continent’s vast population.
This includes a lack of trained personnel, facilities, and equipment. In addition, there is a significant lack of investment in health care in Africa.
The African Development Bank reported in the “Strategy for Quality Health Infrastructure in Africa 2020-2030” that “With just 15% of the global population, Africa accounts for 50% of global deaths from infectious diseases. Poor health outcomes reflect a lack of access to quality health services: a third of Africans live more than two hours away from health services, and there are severe shortages in hospital beds, medical equipment, and drugs.”
This lack of investment is also due in part to corruption, which is still a major problem in many African countries.
For example, a study by Transparency International found that as much as $5 billion was lost to corruption in the health sector in Nigeria between 2010 and 2015.
In addition, a lack of transparency and accountability makes it difficult to track how funds are being used, or if they are being used at all. This lack of transparency often makes donors reluctant to invest in health care projects in Africa.
The cost of genomic sequencing is also still too high for most Africans. While the price of sequencing a genome has fallen significantly in recent years, it is still out of reach for many people on the continent.
This is why initiatives like the Angolan genome center are so important. Making sequencing more affordable will make it possible for more people to access this life-saving technology.
Predicting The Future
Despite the challenges, there is reason to be optimistic about the future of genomic medicine in Africa.
As more African countries invest in genomic research and infrastructure, the continent will likely become a leading force in this cutting-edge field. This will not only help to save lives but also boost the continent’s economy.
In addition, as sequencing technology continues to become more affordable, it will eventually become available to more people on the continent. This will allow for earlier disease detection and treatment and could help reduce Africa’s high mortality rates.
While there are still many challenges to be faced, the future of genomic medicine in Africa looks promising.