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

54Gene's genome sequencing lab is fitted with technology by Illumina, the American biotech. Image source: Abasi Ene-Obong on Twitter

54Gene’s genome sequencing lab is fitted with technology by Illumina, the American biotech. Image source: Abasi Ene-Obong on Twitter

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.