Nigeria looks to regulate emerging biotechnologies

By Nkechi Isaac

May 16, 2019

Nigeria is considering expanding the scope of its biosafety agency to regulate emerging technologies, such as gene editing, gene drives and synthetic biology.

Obinna Chidoka, chairman of the House Committee on Environment and Habitat, spoke in support of the concept at a public hearing on the proposed amendment of the 2015 law that created the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA). The agency oversees and regulates the country’s development and use of medical and agricultural biotechnology.

Chidoka pointed out the act establishing NBMA gave it room to expand its scope, which he said is now necessary to effectively regulate advancements in biotechnology, including emerging technologies. Nigeria should not be left behind in exploring new territories that could be beneficial to its citizenry and its development, he said.

Dr. Rufus Ebegba, director-general of the NBMA, commended the National Assembly for being proactive in considering an expansion of the law’s scope to specifically deal with synthetic biology, gene editing, gene drives and biosecurity. In doing so, he said, Nigeria could actually break new ground for other countries to emulate.

“I think there are other countries too that are also trying to amend their developed laws to address these emerging issues,” he said.

Additionally, Ebegba noted, it was decided at last November’s United Nations Conference on Biodiversity, and also at the session serving as the meeting to the party to the Cartagena Protocol, that countries should develop regulations and amend existing laws specifically to address emerging technologies.

“The technology is evolving, moving very fast,” Ebegba said. “Sometimes we find it difficult to place these emerging technologies [within the current law]. I think having a law as being proposed would be in the interest of the nation and other countries could definitely emulate Nigeria.”

He expressed strong conviction that the biotech sector would be properly guided by the amendment, which would give the nation the legal impetus to go into scientific discovery in these areas. Amending the law would enhance Nigeria’s biotechnology sector, he said, and the public would have more confidence in products developed through emerging technologies knowing they were regulated and monitored under the law.

Similarly, Dr. Olalekan Akinbo, senior program officer of the African Biosafety Network of Expertise, commended the National Assembly for its dynamism in preparing and equipping the law for the future. Though such technologies currently are not available in Nigeria, he said, the amendment would provide the nation with an instrument to regulate them when they finally debut. It would also allow the NBMA to legally build its own capacity to provide effective oversight.

“For the amendment to be pushed forward …. I think it is a smart way and it also gives Nigeria leeway to up their game, they are one step ahead,” Akinbo said.

He described the move as being in line with the global perspective on emerging technologies, noting that the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) had already decided to expand its scope to include biosecurity and gave similar guidance to the member-states that are signatory to the convention.

“The NBMA is … just following the CBD,” Akinbo said. “If [the Act] is revised and amended … it would be a good opportunity for them [NBMA] to co-evolve with the technology development to build their capacity ahead of the delivery of the technology. So, it would not be like the case of GMO that is so controversial. Gene drive technology is not available for now, but the proof of concept has shown that it would work. So as the scientists are developing it, trying it in the lab and confined field trials, the regulatory bodies also are learning the skills to know how to safely regulate it.”