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Genomics. WHO: “It cannot be the preserve of rich countries alone”

A new report calls for expanding access to genetic technologies, particularly in low- and middle-income countries, by addressing shortfalls in funding, laboratory infrastructure, materials, and highly skilled staff: “It is neither ethically nor scientifically justified that countries with fewer resources gain access to these technologies for a long time after the rich countries.” the report.

July 12

The World Health Organization’s Council of Scientific Experts has released its first report on accelerating access to genomics for global health. The report argues that it is not morally or scientifically justified that countries with fewer resources should have access to such technologies long after rich countries.

The report calls for expanded access to genetic technologies, particularly in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), by addressing shortfalls in funding, laboratory infrastructure, materials, and highly skilled staff.

While the costs of creating and expanding genomic technologies are decreasing, according to the World Health Organization, they can and should be reduced further.

In this regard, WHO notes that a range of tools have been developed to make genetic technologies more convenient, including differentiated pricing; Sharing intellectual property rights for low-cost versions and cross-support, where profits in one area are used to fund another.

“Genomics technologies are driving some of the most ground-breaking research taking place today. However, the benefits of these tools will not be fully realized unless they are distributed around the world. Only through fairness can science reach its full potential to influence and improve health,” said Dr. Swaminathan toxicitychief scientist of the World Health Organization who explained how “by bringing together and coordinating the world’s leading minds, as we do through our Scientific Council, WHO acts as a global engine of analysis to address the world’s most pressing health challenges.”

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Composed of 9 leading scientists and public health experts from around the world, the Scientific Council was established in April 2021 by WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, as an advisory body on high-priority issues and advances in science and technology that could directly improve the level global health.

The Science Council identified genomics as the focus of its first study, given the important public health implications; Numerous successful uses in treating infectious diseases, cancers and other chronic diseases and for new opportunities to implement costly technologies, including in low- and middle-income countries.

To advance the widespread adoption or use of genomics, the report’s recommendations address four topics: advocacy, implementation, collaboration, and associated ethical, legal and social issues:

  • Advocacy for genomics is necessary to convince governments, as well as commercial and non-commercial organizations, academic and other institutions, of the medical, scientific, and economic benefits of genomic technologies.
  • Overcoming implementation barriers will require local planning, financing, extensive training of key personnel, and low-cost provision of computing tools, materials, and infrastructure.
  • Government ministries, funding agencies, and scientific organizations in academia and industry must work together to develop plans on how to use genomics and build and expand technical capacity. It should also seek to pool resources through regional programmes, where appropriate.
  • Effective monitoring, along with national and international norms and standards, is essential to promoting the ethical, legal, fair and responsible exchange of information obtained using genetic methods.

To strengthen the recommendations and monitor their applications in all four key areas, the report also recommends that the World Health Organization establish a genome commission. One of the main proposed responsibilities of the Genome Committee is to invite companies to develop and implement ways to make products and technologies available in low- and middle-income countries.

The report comes on the heels of the launch of the World Health Organization’s 10-year strategy for genetic surveillance of pathogens. Genomic surveillance has played an important role in the global response to COVID-19, with countries like South Africa being able to make a critical contribution to variant discovery, thanks to their capabilities in this field.

Recent WHO data shows that the percentage of countries able to conduct genetic surveillance increased from 54% to 68% between March 2021 and January 2022, due to significant investments made during the COVID-19 pandemic.

12 July 2022
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