Who Owns Whom

During November 2021, South Africa was very much in the news regarding the Omicron variant of Covid-19, why was that?

Dr Tulio and his fellow scientists from the University of Stellenbosch were conducting routine genomic surveillance of SARSA-CoV-2 from different regions across South Africa when they noticed worrying variations in genomes clustered in the Gauteng province, which had been hit hard by the Delta Variant. They quickly alerted their colleagues around the country to ramp up analysis and when they found additional cases, they sounded an alarm, notifying national government and the international community.

This is how scientists at Stellenbosch University’s Centre for Epidemic Response and Innovation (CERI), led by Dr. de Oliveira, helped the world learn of the new Omicron variant. Stellenbosch University had received a Rockefeller Foundation grant that helped them establish the Epidemic Response and Innovation (CERI) which empowered the team to sequence the virus, identify a potential variation, confirm its existence, share the data, and sound the alarm

Thank you to the science behind genomics, an early-stage technology that has the potential to play a major role in human and animal health, as well as food security.

The economics of the technology also has great potential to drive economic advancements and create high value employment.

According to a report commissioned by the American Society of Human Genetics, in the USA, Federal research funding, reached $3.3 billion in 2019, an amount determined using a conservative definition of what constitutes human genetics and genomics research. The industry created about 89,464 core private sector industry jobs and an estimated 62,710 additional extended industry jobs. With a direct employment estimate of nearly 166,000 academic and industry jobs, human genetics and genomics supported more than 850,000 total jobs. The direct economic activity generated by the human genetics and genomics industry exceeded $108 billion in 2019 and ultimately supported a total of more than $265 billion across the U.S. economy.

These are good numbers that present emerging economies like South Africa with much needed opportunities in both economic activity as well as job creation, inputs that can lift SA out of the quagmire of sluggish economic growth.

According to one of the special series of reports produced by Who Owns Whom on the key economic disrupters of the 21st century, the genomics industry has enormous potential to contribute to the health sector by assisting in the analyses of unique sequences of an individual’s DNA. This helps doctors and scientists understand diseases better (for example, how to predict, prevent, diagnose and treat diseases). Genomics can help determine the future risks of debilitating diseases, such as cancer and many common complex diseases, as well as supporting the diagnosis of rare diseases.

This technology is also important for the productivity and sustainability of agriculture and forestry, and for the safety and quality of the food supply chain. With food security at a higher risk than before particularly as a result of soil degradation and climate change, scientists are looking to genomics in an effort to manipulate or improve plant traits for agricultural uses in an environmentally sustainable manner. Sub Saharan African is in dire need of such technological advancement in order to address the increasing population, poverty and declining economic growth as well as reduced investments in agriculture.

We have seen a shift in the methods of farming in Africa aided by technological advancements. More farmers are now utilising the use of drones to monitor their crops and harvest automation, autonomous tractors, seeding and weeding. Farm automation technology is also being utilised to address major issues like a rising global population and changing consumer preferences.

Combining these new farming methods and genomics in agriculture can make a meaningful contribution towards food security, economic growth as well as small business opportunities by improving crop and animal genetics to cope with environmental and biotic stresses, such as water deficits, heat and animal diseases. Genomics should be part of an integrated holistic approach for enhancing agricultural sustainability and poverty eradication.

That will obviously require governments in the region to take an intentional approach by investing in the development of appropriate skills in line with the 4th industrial revolution. Universities will also need to re-look at their curricula and tech companies to be more socially conscious by taking smaller players along as they introduce new developments.

In today’s world of social media, education does play an extremely important role in disseminating correct information about genetics and its ethical implications to avoid the spread of misleading information as we have seen with COVID-19 and its vaccines. Genetically Modified produce is not immune (pun intended) to such possibilities.

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