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Bringing Genomic COVID-19 Surveillance to the Developing World

Thu 11th March 2021

Kahlil Corazo is an entrepreneur and project manager from the Philippines who initiated and led Project Accessible Genomics, a low-cost genomic sequencing operation that aims to bring pathogen surveillance capability to low- and middle-income countries. We caught up with Kahlil to discuss how he came to set up the project, and the lessons he has learnt and hopes to share with other labs in the developing world.

Kahlil Corazo is presenting a webinar on ‘Bringing genomic COVID-19 surveillance to the developing world’ with Technology Networks on Thursday 18th March, 3pm GMT. Register here.

What led you to set up Project Accessible Genomics?

Whilst we were in lockdown in the Philippines in May 2020, I asked myself what I could contribute to help face this pandemic. I am a project manager and entrepreneur by profession, but at the same time, I was in the middle of my MSc, preparing for a thesis on nanopore sequencing. I was in a position to see both a key problem, which was the lack of genomic pathogen surveillance in developing countries, but also a potential solution, which was nanopore sequencing which is low-cost and portable. So, it was both an emotional need to be part of the pandemic response, and objectively the right thing for me to do.

Can you tell us more about how portable, long-read sequencing technology is changing genomics in developing countries? 

This is the first time any organism will be sequenced on-site in Mindanao, Philippines. If a volunteer group could make this happen, it means that genetic sequencing is now open to most parts of the world. It just needs a transfer of knowhow and expertise.

What impact could a greater access to genomic sequencing have?

In the immediate-term, greater access to genetic sequencing will allow more low- and middle-income countries to track SARS-CoV-2 variants circulating in their geographies. In the long-term, this opens up so many avenues of research, as well as applications in the fields of medicine, agriculture, and biodiversity.

What have been the main challenges in your work and how have you approached them?

Being a non-traditional, volunteer team involved in genomics across the world, our main difficulty has been in raising grant money. But this has turned out to be a blessing in disguise as it has forced us to experiment with other sources of funding, such as from Open Science platforms like JOGL.io, and crowdfunding. These sources of funding could also be better sources for many other small labs across the global south. Bringing equipment and reagents into the country turned out to be quite challenging, but we see that experience as a set of lessons that we could share to other labs in the developing world and hope to spare them from the same difficulties.

What is your advice for someone thinking about setting up a new venture like Accessible Genomics?

Don't be afraid to fail. In a situation like a pandemic, the risk of personal failure is dwarfed by the risk of not doing anything.

 

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