As part of COP-MOP intersessional activities, AUDA-NEPAD ABNE and the AU Department of Human Resources, Science and Technology organised a consultation and training on Genome Editing and a Post-UN Biodiversity Conference 2018 Review Meeting, from 25 – 28 June, 2019 in Addis Ababa. Following the recommendation made by the AU member states in September 2018, that the AU biosafety regulators forum be established, the said platform was constituted on 28 June, 2019.
The gathering brought together 60 participants (regulators and scientists) from 31 AU member States.
In his opening remarks, Nicholas Omondi Ouma, on behalf of Dr Mahama Ouedraogo, Director of the African Union Commission Department of Human Resource, science and Technology welcomed the participants and said that “the technical and policy issues pertaining to the application of genome edition is a critical conversation to have. It is therefore in this regard that the AU Commission is supporting this important initiative by our implementing partners at AUDA through the ABNE Program in the preparation of this training”.
This meeting had two main components; the first one concerned the capacity building aspect and the second one, on the last day, was dedicated to the COP-MOP follow-up and the establishment of the African Biosafety Regulatory Forum.
The last COP-MOP discussions in Egypt focused on emerging technologies like gene drive, genome editing and synthetic biology and the African Group of Negotiators expressed the need for capacity strengthening in these areas. AUDA-NEPAD and AUC initiated this meeting to respond to this request and strengthen the capacity of African regulators on genome editing first, while planning for training on other emerging technologies before the next COP-MOP meeting in late 2020.
Participants were provided with technical information on the applications of genome editing, particularly for plant varieties or animal breeds that may be on the horizon. They were also walked through policies currently being applied toward genome edited products in other geographies and the rationale for such policies. As a result of group work and discussions, African biosafety regulators made strong statements and recommendations to AUC and AUDA-NEPAD regarding the Regulatory aspects of genome editing. They particularly called for a continental position on genome editing that will support decisions of regulators at local conditions.
On the last day, participants took stock of the recently concluded UN Biodiversity Conference 2018 in Egypt with regards to lessons learnt, and reviewed the implementation of upcoming post-COP-MOP intercessional activities that would require immediate action.
Implementing the recommendation of the member States in September that AUC and AUDA-NEPAD support the establishment of the AU- Biosafety Regulators Forum, the AU-BRF was officially constituted. The African Union Biosafety Regulators Forum envisions to be A model of excellence in biosafety regulation for the safe use of modern biotechnology and its related emerging technologies in Africa. It aims to serve as a catalyst for coherent biosafety regulatory oversight in the continent.
An interim board was established with the mandate of proposing upcoming activities of this continental forum and setting up the formal Steering Committee of the African Union Biosafety Regulatory Forum. The interim board is constituted of seven members and is chaired by Dr Rufus Ebegba, Director General of the National Biosafety Management of Nigeria. The six other members are representatives of the Southern Africa Region, the Eastern Region, the Northern Region, the Western Region, and also a Legal Advisor and a Scientific Advisor.
A few participants share their views
Dr Rufus Ebegba, Director General of the National Biosafety Management Agency in Nigeria, newly elected as Chairman of the interim board of the AU Biosafety Regulators Forum.
“This meeting is a milestone in the life of Africa. It was an opportunity for African biosafety regulators to dialogue on the way forward particularly when it concerns new technologies that are emerging in the area of biosafety. The meeting have given us in-depth information and knowledge on genome editing and the opportunity to think beyond the normal regulatory system. Now we understand how to regulate the sector so that we will be able to regulate the genome editing technologies that fall within the Living Modified Organisms (LMOs), and those that would not fall within the LMOs, we would not need to bother ourselves.
The meeting has also enabled us to have the opportunity to create a structure whereby biosafety regulators can always meet to assist the African Union with functional policy issues and driving issues of biosafety in the African continent. With the establishment of this biosafety regulators forum, more confidence will be given to modern biotechnology and its products and it will give the African States, that have not been able to establish their structures, the opportunity for us to discuss with them at the national level to encourage them to establish their regulatory institutions and also to strengthen their human capacity especially those who don’t have enough personnel to run their biosafety offices and agencies.”
Dr. Roda Sansão Nuvunga Luís, Biosafety Authority (GIIBS), Ministry of Science and Technology, Higher and Technical Vocational Education of Mozambique and Member of the interim board of the AU Biosafety Regulators Forum.
“During the COP-MOP discussions in Sharm El Sheik, we felt that we really needed to go deep with our knowledge on genome editing in order to have a position in Africa. Maybe only one or two countries in the continent are having products from this technology, but at least, we need to prepare ourselves to do some legislation because I am sure we will be receiving products derived from this technology.
It was a very productive meeting. I was honoured to be nominated as member of the interim board in charge of fully establishing the African biosafety platform.”
Mr Anthe Komi, Focal Point of Cartagena Protocol, Ministry of Environment and Forest Resources, Togo, and Legal Advisor of the interim board of the AU Biosafety Regulators Forum
“This training has allowed us to ensure that countries have a clear understanding of a number of topics, including international developments in certain technologies and how Africa might position itself in relation to these technologies. Personally, I had no idea about genome editing. This means that at the level of our States nothing can be done in this area. We do not know how to use these technologies to improve people’s living conditions. Through this type of training, AUC and NEPAD are opening the eyes of African States and drawing their attention to their responsibilities and the important decisions they might have to make. But if we do not know about these developments, nothing can be done at the national level. After this meeting, we will report to our respective authorities and in particular the ministers in charge of biosafety issues to help them identify all the contours of the topic before making any decision in this area.”