African Startup 54gene Raises $15M To Accelerate COVID-19 Testing In Nigeria

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Written by Peter Pedroncelli
pan-African biobank testing
African health-tech startup 54gene has raised $15 to accelerate African genetic research while focusing on expanding COVID-19 testing in Nigeria. African genomics startup 54gene’s Nigerian team with founder Dr. Abasi Ene-Obong, front and center. Photo supplied by 54gene

This article was updated on April 16 to reflect new funding. It was originally published on April 3.

Y Combinator-backed African health-tech startup 54gene has raised $15 million in Series-A funding to increase African genomic data for use in health research and medicine development.

Africa’s pharmaceutical industry is worth $14 billion, according to McKinsey. Despite this, data from Africa is limited.

54gene plans to use the $15 million funding to scale its efforts to detect and identify DNA markers from people of African origin that have traditionally been ignored by researchers and pharmaceutical firms, TechCrunch reports.

Just 2 percent of genetic material used for pharmaceutical research comes from Africa, while genetic data on Caucasians makes up 90 percent of the data and samples available.

Lagos-based 54gene has been described as Africa’s version of popular U.S. DNA genetic testing company 23andMe. 54gene collects DNA samples for research to improve healthcare for people of African origin. It also uses DNA samples to develop treatments for diseases that impact all populations.

Genetic data from Africa is limited. 54gene aims to detect and identify DNA markers that have been ignored by researchers. In addition to its Nigerian headquarters, the company has an office in San Francisco.

The tech firm, which participated in Y Combinator’s winter 2019 demo day, is in the process of collecting DNA data from multiple African countries including Nigeria.

At the beginning of April, 54gene raised $500,000 to purchase test kits and provide training that is expected to boost coronavirus testing in Nigeria, where only 200 tests per day were being conducted in a country of 204 million people.

Nigeria has 184 confirmed cases of the COVID-19 virus, resulting in two reported deaths. Three of Nigeria’s major cities — Lagos, Ogun, and Abuja — imposed a two-week lockdown in the hope of preventing the spread of the coronavirus, according to AlJazeera.

Testing has been a problem in Nigeria. The Nigeria Center for Disease Control had tested only 152 people by March 22, 100 times less than the 15,000 tests that were carried out in South Africa — which discovered its index case a week later than Nigeria.

There are now around 200 coronavirus tests being conducted each day in Nigeria.

The ability to test people for the COVID-19 virus through test kits is fundamental in the effort to control the spread of the virus, according to the World Health Organization

Screening and quarantine procedures are important tools in stopping the spread of the coronavirus, said World Health Organization assistant director-general Bruce Aylward.

Nigerian genomics research company 54gene does not manufacture test kits but it has identified coronavirus testing as its mission, according to a blog post. The company is getting involved in raising the money and purchasing the test kits while also organizing for healthcare workers to be trained in how to conduct the testing.

Making an initial $150,000 donation, 54gene launched a fund that it will use to purchase test kits and provide training.

The company then opened the fund up to outside contributions and attracted a further $350,000 from others in the private sector including Lagos-based Union Bank.

In partnership with the Nigeria Center for Disease Control, 54gene claims that the $500,000 funding could help raise capacity by up to 1,000 additional tests per day on top of the current 200 tests being conducted.

54gene plans to do this by providing the necessary medical resources and funding the training of additional healthcare workers to conduct tests and analyze the samples they collect.

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54gene is also planning to purchase personal protective equipment needed to keep front line healthcare workers safe — it has already bought 4,000 N95 protective masks for nurses and doctors in Nigeria’s public hospitals.

54gene was founded in 2019 by Dr. Abasi Ene-Obong, a resident of San Francisco, who has a Ph.D. in cancer biology from the University of London, according to LinkedIn.  

Those wishing to contribute to the Nigeria COVID-19 Testing Fund can contact Nigeriacovid19fund@54gene.com