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Francis Collins Calls for African Genomics 'Moonshot'

LOS ANGELES – Francis Collins on Thursday called for an "African Moonshot" in the form of a network for Genomic Centers of Excellence (GenCoE) aimed at creating the training capacity to retain African scientists and develop a set of common standards for use across the continent.

Speaking at the American Society of Human Genetics annual meeting, the former director of the National Institutes of Health proposed a cross-continent network of eight to 10 centers based on a "hub-and-spoke" model focusing on genomics applications such as pathogen surveillance and advancing genomics for precision medicine.

A pathogen surveillance network, Collins explained, could prove instrumental in future pandemic preparedness, vaccine development, and vector control, while genomic initiatives aimed at precision medicine could bring advances in newborn screening, as well as tackling longstanding African health challenges such as HIV and sickle cell anemia.

African research institutions and biomedical companies have been steadily growing their capacity to conduct research free of international collaboration and leadership and to both retain young African researchers who might otherwise seek opportunities abroad and entice those who have left to return.

Mayowa Owolabi, a professor of neurology at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria, for instance, highlighted H3Africa's SIREN Project, which recently completed the first African stroke-related GWAS, uncovering variants related to neurological and other cardiac disorders.

Underscoring Collins' call for greater training capacity, Nicola Mulder of H3ABioNet, a bioinformatics network to support H3Africa's researchers, explained that that consortium's greatest challenge at present is training and retaining a skilled genomics workforce. Despite successes from initiatives such as the African Postdoctoral Training Initiative, Mulder said, more needs to be done.

Meanwhile, Collins said that GenCoE is currently working on finalizing its business plan and securing political endorsement from various African leaders, and he aims to present the plan for the formation of the GenCoE at the Congress of Human Genetics in Cape Town, South Africa, in February next year.