54Gene, COVID-19 and the prospects of Human Biotechnology in Nigeria

By Oluwabukunmi Familoye and Ikpeme Neto

Nigeria doesn’t contribute much to the global biotech industry which is estimated to be worth $833.34 billion with a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of over 7.02% by 2027,  but this is beginning to change. 

The impending growth of Biotech in Nigeria has been aided by the covid-19 pandemic where it has been central to the response. At the forefront of this increased attention is 54gene, a Nigerian biotech startup that has attracted $20 million in funding from Silicon Valley venture capitalists who are betting big on the yet unexplored African genome. 

54 gene’s rise coinciding with the covid-19 pandemic has increased the potential for the founding of more biotech startups and an influx of more venture capital. Unlike other VC backed verticals, biotech is a highly specialized field that requires significant training, qualifications and expertise. Success here is predicated on the difficult ability to develop and commercialize research findings from the laboratory bench.

The Laboratory Bench and the Role of Government

In 2001, Nigeria approved a National biotechnology policy that led to the establishment of the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA) under the aegis of the Federal Ministry of science and technology. The agency’s goal is to “promote, coordinate and set the research and development priority in biotechnology for Nigeria. 

To further its mission, NABDA established twenty-five (25) bioresources centres in remote areas in Nigeria intending to discover untapped resources for biotech research and development. Between the parent agency and these centres, there isn’t much discernable research output. While the agency’s website alludes to being at the “cutting edge for the socio-economic wellbeing of the nation”, the filler ‘lorem ipsum’ text still on the agency’s website calls into question the commitment to their mission. The agency has also not been helped by its chronic underfunding and graft from its leadership. Its 2021 budget is only $8 million while its acting director-general was in 2020 arrested for allegedly misappropriating about $1 million further impairing the prospects of the agency.

A government agency on the other hand that has had significant research output is the Nigerian Institute Of Medical Research (NIMR) in Yaba, Lagos. Established in 1977, the institute has played a relatively active role in health research in Nigeria. It has a track record of research and collaboration. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, they collaborated with CCHUB to develop a digital tool to aid adherence to Tuberculosis medications. In 2019, its partnership with the Institute of Pasteur Senegal enabled them to acquire more skills in the detection of viruses using serological assays. This increased its preparedness for the COVID-19 pandemic when it struck in Nigeria in 2020.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, they partnered with LifeBank, a health logistics startup, to provide COVID-19 drive-in testing centres. In addition, they’ve developed local RNA kits to support COVID-19 testing and have ongoing work on a local Covid-19 vaccine. NIMR’s 2021 budget is only slightly better than NABDA’s at $11 million. A grossly inadequate amount for a leading research centre. For comparison, the United States government via its National Institutes of Health (NIH) spent $7 billion on biotech research alone in 2019.

Non-Governmental Research funding

The government’s chronic underfunding of its flagship biotech research agencies has created a huge gap. Attempts to plug this gap have attracted funding from several international efforts. One noteworthy initiative is the Human Hereditary and Health in Africa (H3Africa). The initiative which was established in 2010, offers different funding opportunities to aid genomic research in Africa to African scientists interested in this field from ideation to implementation. The initiative was funded by the United States National Institute of Health (NIH), the African Academy of Science, Wellcome Trust and the Alliance for Accelerating Science in Africa. African researchers can collaborate on different genomic projects and also access funding for their research. The initiative has invested $176 million in genomics research and 51 projects have been recorded across Africa with several in Nigeria.

One project that’s received H3Africa funding is The African Collaborative Center for Microbiome and Genomics Research hosted by the Institute of Human Virology, Nigeria. The centre’s objective is to “collaborate and implement high impact integrative research into discovery of biomarkers associated with cancer”. Another H3Africa beneficiary is the African Center of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases (ACEGID). The centre which has also received over $9 million in funding from the world bank is hosted in Redeemer’s University, a private institution. It caught national and global attention when, alongside other partners, it sequenced the COVID-19 virus soon after it arrived on Nigeria’s shores. Becoming the first centre in Africa to achieve this feat and also contributing to the global understanding of the virus. Structured as a non-profit, it’s been able to attract significant support that’s enabled it to acquire high-end genomics equipment such as the NovaSeq 6000 sequencing system that costs over $1 million. 54gene, a privately funded company, is the only other outfit with this equipment in Africa. The cost of this singular equipment illustrates how expensive biotechnology research is. While these alternative funding mechanisms are laudable, the absence of local public funding handicaps the biotech market significantly and discourages private capital from participating. An OECD report demonstrates that public R&D funding is a catalytic force that encourages the private sector to plough in more resources as public funding de-risks the uncertain aspects of research. Public funds usually go towards unattractive basic science research that doesn’t have a clear path to revenue. This basic science is however foundational to further applied research that translates into drugs and devices used in humans. In the case of the U.S, >90% of the 210 new drugs approved in a six-year period were all based on publicly-funded basic science research that amounted to over $100 billion in funding from the government. The tacit understanding in the U.S is that the government funds basic research while the private sector figures out a path to commercialization.