Genetics is the study of an individual s entire genome or the genetic structure of a person. In developed countries genomics is viewed as a saviour because it will be possible to develop personalized medicine by studying a patient s genome.
The World Health Organization (WHO) used bio-ethics to frame the relationship between Genomics and World Health and has adopted a health and human rights perspective in their report on Genomics and World Health . The human rights perspective was in the context of genetic enhancements that is using genetic manipulations to make better babies or simply better humans.
Critiques of the WHO Report have argued that the Advisory Committee on Health Research which prepared the report concludes that only some members of society, the elites, need to have a right to new genetics and physicians who care for the elite can do so without worrying about bioethics.
Bioethics or medical ethics deals primarily with decisions made in the doctor-patient relationship. It is in this latter context that bioethics and genomics have been widely debated. The risks of genomic research are highlighted in the WHO Report. This includes the application of genomics to bio-warfare. The scientific community should take the risk of bio-warfare applications of the new genomics, seriously. The WHO report concludes with hope and warning that: The new and rapidly evolving field of genomics offers considerable possibilities for the improvement of human health but, the full extent of the possible hazards are not yet fully appreciated .
A Canadian group followed the WHO report with an exercise designed to identify top ten new bio-technologies most likely to be helpful in improving the health of people in resource poor developing countries. Three genomic-based technologies at the top of the list are first, modified molecular technologies for affordable, simple diagnosis for infection diseases. For example a research group in the Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang using biotechnology has perfected a procedure for diagnosing typhoid infection which gives results in 10 minutes. Second, recombinant technologies to develop vaccines against infectious diseases and third, technologies for more efficient drug and vaccine, delivery system. The thesis of the Canadian report is that, biotechnologies can help to bridge rather than deepen existing divides between the developed and developing world. On the other hand the authors recognize that there is no technological fix for health, and that it will require a balanced approach: Bio-technologies will never be a panacea to current health inequities, but available evidence demonstrates that it is rightly considered a part of the solution . On this subject the WHO report arrives at a similar conclusion . None of these advances will be of any value unless developing countries can evolve into healthcare systems on which these new advances can be made.
We yet need much more research-based evidence to accept that new genetics are likely to do more good than harm in resource-poor developing countries or that bioethics provides useful guidance to deal with genomic research in developing countries. What is needed is a human rights perspective to both promote social justice and inhibit discriminations.
The global research community should work together to promote genetic secrecy, prevent the genetic engineering of humans and promote and protect universal human rights based on dignity and equality.