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Canada must seize its strategic advantage in the global genomics race

COVID-19 testing at the lab at Calgary’s South Health Campus. (Alberta Precision Laboratories)

By Dr. Rob Annan, President and CEO, Genome Canada

A version of this afticle first appeared in The Hill Times

Rob Annan headshot

Setting Canadian humility aside, when it comes to genomics—the science of life’s operating system—Canada is among the world’s leaders and within reach of becoming a global powerhouse.

Canada’s strategic advantage in genomics presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to harness long-term growth, low-carbon productivity and a healthier future for Canadians. 

The federal government took a major step forward when it announced a $400 million Pan-Canadian Genomics Strategy in Budget 2021. The March 14, 2023 release of a What We Heard” report on the strategy underlines the commitment and ambition of scientists, students, industry, research organizations and funders, including 20+ years of leadership by Genome Canada and a pan-Canadian network of six regional Genome Centres.

The consensus is clear: we must double down on data, talent, commercialization and collaboration. Anything less risks our hard-won competitive edge.

Canadian scientists are using genomics to improve our health, develop climate-resistant crops, protect endangered wildlife, decode new COVID-19 variants, and harness microbes to reduce the environmental impact of critical mineral mining for electric vehicles. A national genomics strategy will lay vital groundwork to build on these successes—and just in time—as other countries intensify their investments in this space.

The US recently dialed up support for research and development with a $280 billion investment through the CHIPS and Science Act in 2022. Their ambitious All of Us Project will collect health data from more than a million Americans to accelerate research breakthroughs. The UK, France, Finland and other EU nations have also launched large-scale national genomic data initiatives.

These countries recognize that large genomic data sets—from which we can identify trends and generate actionable insights—are the greatest resource of the new economy. They will revolutionize health, food systems and the environment.

We are already developing large-scale genomics data sets from intergovernmental public health efforts. Data in the Canadian VirusSeq Data Portal and CGEn’s HostSeq Databank, for example, have been crucial to tracking COVID-19 and researching its impact. Similarly, Genome Canada’s Climate-Smart Agriculture and Food Systems initiative will harness genomic data to reduce the carbon footprint of food production systems.

Advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and quantum science are essential to harnessing this data’s value. The good news is that Canada has just launched AI and quantum strategies, providing an opportunity for alignment across these key policy areas and maximizing the Pan-Canadian Genomics Strategy’s impact.

Big data is one part of the story. Developing genomics talent is another. Genome Canada has supported more than 6,700 trainees through research investments since 2000. Meanwhile, initiatives like the Summer Internship for Indigenous Peoples in Genomics are building new capacity and scientific literacy in genomics, ensuring more equitable access to, and benefit from, these technologies.

This next generation of genomics innovators is developing and commercializing made-in-Canada solutions with global impact. Last year, the World Economic Forum named Toronto-based startup DNAstack a Technology Pioneer for its software technologies enabling global discovery, access and analysis of exponentially growing volumes of genomic and clinical data. And Life Sciences Ontario just named it company of the year.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. We know Canada’s got game when it comes to big genomics data, talent and commercialization. But this country is vast and complex, with varied genomics research capacity and commercialization opportunities in every region. We need to collaborate and coordinate better to maximize this opportunity to build a productive, knowledge-based economy. 

To realize this vision for Canada’s economy, alignment between our science policy and economic policy is a must. The Advisory Panel Report on the Federal Research Support System (The “Bouchard” report), released in March 2023, provides fresh direction in this regard, underlining the need for an updated national strategy for science and research that ensures alignment between academic training and research, and economic needs and implementation.

For genomics science in particular, Canada has established its competitive advantage over many OECD nations—we just need to keep our eyes on the prize. Doubling down on genomic data, talent, commercialization and collaboration will secure Canada’s global leadership, and major economic benefits, in the genomics revolution.  

To those listening, the recent “What We Heard” report tells us that Canada’s genomics community is ready to seize this moment and deliver results now.

(Photo above: COVID-19 testing at the lab at Calgary’s South Health Campus. (Alberta Precision Laboratories))

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