There is no ethical or scientific reason why poorer countries should gain access to genomic technology long after richer countries, the World Health Organisation's (WHO) Science Council stated in their first report on access to genomic technologies.
Genomics uses methods from biochemistry, molecular biology, and genetics to better understand DNA sequences and gene functions. Since its discovery, genomics has been used to predict, diagnose, treat, and even prevent infectious and genetic conditions. Due to the immense benefits of genomics in medicine and public health, the WHO has urged countries to collaborate with one another to help accelerate genomic research worldwide.
'Genomic technologies are driving some of the most ground-breaking research happening today,' said the WHO chief scientist Dr Soumya Swaminathan.
The WHO's Science Council is comprised of nine of the world's leading public health experts and scientists. It was created in April 2021 to advise on scientific and technological advances that could improve global health.
'Genomics can make enormous contributions to human health, from surveying populations for infectious agents, such as the virus that causes COVID-19 (see BioNews 1047), to predicting and treating a wide variety of diseases,' said the chair of the WHO Science Council and Nobel Prize laureate Dr Harold Varmus.
However, despite the benefits of genomic technology, the Council stated that the full potential of genomic technology has not been reached as the technology remains inaccessible to many medium- and low-income countries.
The report notes that while the cost of genomics has decreased, there are many barriers that make genomics inaccessible to medium- and low-income countries. These include the high cost of equipment, lack of proper infrastructure, materials, and trained personnel. However, the Council made several recommendations that could make genomic technologies more accessible.
Tiered pricing, where prices differ depending on countries' income, sharing intellectual property rights for low-cost versions, and cross-subsidisation where profits from one sector can be used to lower the cost of genomic technologies were recommended in the report.
Additionally, the Council suggested that international, regional, and local collaboration between governmental agencies and other countries, industries, and educational institutions may help make genomic technologies even more widely accessible. They also recommend that effective oversight on a national and international level would be important to ensure ethical, equitable, and responsible sharing of information obtained from genomic technologies (see BioNews 1130).
'The benefits of these tools will not be fully realised unless they are deployed worldwide. Only through equity can science reach its full potential impact and improve health for everyone, everywhere,' noted Dr Swaminathan.