Microscopic molecules form the building block of everything that we see in the world today, from bacteria to plants, and animals. A change at the molecular level can alter the morphology and physiology of an organism. By understanding organisms down to the molecular level, scientists can understand how they function or cause infections. This is part of the objectives of molecular studies.
For example, it was molecular studies that helped scientists to understand COVID-19 and eventually came up with a vaccine that will stop its spread. In the future, molecular studies may become more personalized to the patient’s DNA and aid in the treatment of chronic conditions like cancer, anemia, and diabetes.
However, the big challenge at the moment is that molecular studies are not cheap. It needs specialty chemicals and equipment that are usually shipped from abroad. In many African countries, scientists in this field don’t get government support.
In Nigeria, for example, funds available to TETFund which oversees the funding of higher education in Nigeria are limited. Therefore, molecular research is relegated to the bottom of their priority list (with infrastructural intervention usually placed at the top).
Tapping into Nigeria’s biodiversity using molecular studies
Nigeria, like many other African nations, is endowed with rich biodiversity in terms of plants, animals, and humans. This abundant biodiversity serves as an untapped reservoir for potential medical advancements.
Molecular studies can help scientists to study some of these diverse organisms to solve some of the country’s infectious disease burden. Nigeria has unique organisms with the potential of causing the next pandemic like Lassa fever. The country also bears the burden of numerous neglected tropical diseases.
The journey to finding a long-lasting solution to some of these disease burdens depends on understanding the infectious pattern and composition of the causative agents. It will interest you to know that with limited resources and equipment, Nigeria was still one of the countries that first sequenced the SAR-CoV-2 genome soon after the country detected its presence.
Imagine what more the scientists in the country can do if they had the right support in terms of funding, equipment, and reagents. Nigeria has the potential to lead the continent in developing therapeutics to combat the region’s unique diseases.
Breaking the chain of over-reliance on foreign intervention
At the moment, Africa has an unhealthy dependence on Western intervention to deal with neglected tropical diseases (including African trypanosomiasis and river blindness) and other emerging outbreaks like Lassa fever and Ebola. Africa as a continent and Africans cannot continue to depend on western researchers to create solutions to the region’s unique challenges.
Firstly, every region of the world has its own unique challenges. Therefore, Africa’s unique disease burden will always remain secondary for Western researchers. Also, this unhealthy dependence leads to exploitation when the drugs or vaccines are eventually created. It becomes a case of the highest bidder as we saw in the COVID-19 vaccine distribution—which further enriches Western pharmaceutical companies.
It is time for African leaders to arise and support molecular research in their various countries. Also, African molecular researchers should learn to collaborate and pool resources for a common course.
If we have learned anything from the coronavirus pandemic and the ongoing monkeypox spread it is that disease threat in one region is a global health risk. Investing in the molecular studies curriculum is another neglected key issue that may hurt the continent even more in years to come. As the current batch of molecular scientists age and phase out, we need capable and fully-baked younger scientists to take their place.