Abasi Ene-Obong – Nigeria’s Top 10 Covid-19 Innovators

Founder, 54 Gene

Dr. Abasi Ene-Obong is founder, 54 Gene, a biotech company that has increased Nigeria’s laboratory testing capacity for COVID-19 with a stationary lab in Lagos and a mobile one in Ogun State. They are reckoned to be the first accredited private facilities to join the country’s network of COVID-19 test centres. 

The biotech company has a DNA biobank lab in Lagos and the latest count of the number of its molecular laboratories in the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control’s network of coronavirus test centres read 17 at press time.

This is a big step taken by a relatively new and private health tech company in facility expansion for coronavirus testing in Nigeria. Last March, the company launched $500,000 fund aimed at increasing the country’s ability to test for the disease. It opened the fund with a donation of $150,000, springing forth the largest single capacity building initiative for Covid-19 management from the private sector.

Impressed by the rapid response of partners in raising the fund, the 54 Gene chief executive officer, said it is a demonstration of a clear understanding of the need for a multi-stakeholder, co-ordinated plan requiring immediate implementation in a joint community effort to fight COVID-19 and protect the Nigerian people.

“The rapid and assured response from some of Nigeria’s most reputable institutions, such as Union Bank, to join us in our fight against this deadly disease, is highly welcome and we thank them for their unwavering support.

“Our job with the COVID-19 fund is to build the requisite infrastructure to ensure that testing can be conducted at scale; so together we can better control this virus before it takes a hold in Nigeria,” he said.

54 Gene’s mobile lab is housed in a 40ft container structure designed with the features of plug and play. It offers the advantage of minimizing delay and logistical challenges involved in shipping samples to another location for processing. This is saving time and cost, which are the critical resources to save lives and ensure the availability of test equipment, protective gear for healthcare workers and other vital accessories.

54 Gene partners with First City Monument Bank, one of Nigeria’s major banks and Argentil Capital Partners, an energy and infrastructure advisory firm for the mobile lab project.Arnergy, a renewable energy company, is providing regular power supply to the facility through a 10 kVA solar power solution.

According the company, the lab is “fully kitted with vital instruments, including an autoclave, biosafety cabinet, centrifuge, heating blocks, vortexes, pipettes, and PCR machines to support COVID-19 testing.” This is a response to scale up Nigeria’s relatively slow pace of testing.

At the end of March when Lagos and Ogun states with Abuja went into a federally mandated lockdown, there were only six accredited laboratories for testing. 54 Gene has since then been rolling out its mobile lab across other states of the federation.

The fund is being applied to increase the COVID-19 testing capacity in Nigeria by up to 1,000 additional tests a day. “We are extremely ambitious in our mission to expand the testing capacity for Nigeria and expect to increase the present rate by at least 10 times in the coming weeks.

“In order to contain the spread of COVID-19, it is essential for us to know who has the disease, so we can put in place effective measures around quarantining confirmed cases,” Ene-Obong said. Building the capacity requires procurement of testing instruments and the required biosafety materials such as biosafety cabinets and personal protective equipment for the safety of frontline healthcare workers.

All the effort that Ene-Obong is putting in to fight coronavirus reflects the priority he accords public health. “With the Nigeria COVID-19 testing fund, we are working in sync with the NCDC to make Nigeria’s public health an absolute priority during this global pandemic, which has left thousands dead or fighting for their lives,” he said.

The 54 Gene’s boss is targeting to accelerate testing capacity up to 5,000 tests per day. He believes that intensifying the testing process for COVID-19 is the critical step to minimize the spread of the infection.

Building the necessary human capacity is also part of the effort at 54 Gene, as the company is applying part of the money raised to hunt for COVID-19 workforce trained in using qPCR instruments and other molecular diagnostics methods.  Additional personnel are expected to provide support for existing public laboratories.

Nigeria Centre for Disease Control [NCDC] has found 54 Gene’s testing support quite effective in tackling the task on hand “This is the kind of support we need; identify a problem, run with it and include a sustainability plan in your solution. We are very grateful for this new partnership with 54 Gene at a critical point in our health security,” Dr. ChikweIhekweazu, director general of NCDC, said.

All equipment being procured are designated for installation in public hospitals and laboratories across Nigeria and will remain in place after the COVID-19 pandemic subsides. Thereafter, they are to be used by medical researchers and clinicians in case of any future outbreak of infections.

Part of the plan is to commit a significant investment in training and support to medical professionals/personnel and volunteers working in coronavirus testing sites across the country. This is to ensure a mass roll-out of effective and robust testing for tens of thousands of Nigerians.

54 Gene is an African genomics research, disease prevention and drug development company, addressing the need to include under-represented African genomic data in research. This is expected to lead to medical breakthroughs and new healthcare solutions worldwide. The company has invested about $5 million in building a world-class genomics and diagnostics infrastructure across Africa.

Through its research collaborations and commercial partnerships, it is enabling the study of African genetics to learn the underlying genetic drivers of disease affecting everyone globally.

Additionally, the company strives to understand the genetic impact on disease penetrance and risk in Africans with a goal of developing better diagnostic and risk assessment tests to inform a more targeted approach to healthcare.

54 Gene set out to develop these insights on its conviction that many new drugs and diagnostic products are being rolled out without the inclusion of African genetic data. The risk, according to the company, is that medicine and other health products could be less efficacious in people of African descent and could also mean that revolutionary drug targets are missed.

Ene-Obong stepped out to fill the gap through collaboration with African researchers and research institutions to generate primary data to promote research and development while growing in-continent resources.

His company collects clinical data and generates genetic data on the African population for global genomics research with the aim of producing novel insights in the discovery of drugs that are more effective on Africans and the global population.