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My short answer to this is, yes, but the real value of Genomics goes beyond an economic return and cannot be captured easily in dollars and cents!

Background

According to US-based non-profit research organisation Battelle, the Human Genome Project (HGP) contributed USD 1 Trillion to the US economy between 1998 and 2012 [1].

The report claims that in 2012 alone, the Genomics industry generated $65 billion in U.S. economic output and contributed $31 billion toward the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) [2]. In 2012, the US GDP was in the order of USD 16 Trillion [3]. So, the Genomics industry’s contribution was in the order of 0.2% of GDP.

To put this into context, the OECD estimates that biotechnology could contribute to up to 2.7% of the GDP in OECD countries by 2030 (from less than 1% today), and considerably more in non-OECD countries [4]. Other reports estimate that the bio-economy contribution towards GDP in various countries may be in the order of 3.7% to 8.4% [5].

Thought experiment

Being located in South Africa, I am tackling the headline question by painting the following scenario: Assuming that there is a vibrant bio-economy in the country by 2030, and that it contributes 2.5% to the country’s GDP, what could the Genomics industry’s contribution look like? I chose 2030 as a target date because it has been earmarked in the DST’s (Department of Science & Technology) current bio-economy strategy [6]. Using a conservative 2% annual GDP growth rate and working off a 2013 GDP of USD 350 bn, the SA bio-economy would have to contribute in the order of 12 billion dollars to the country’s GDP in 2030. Genomics, in turn (if we use the 2012 US figures as a crude basis) would have to contribute USD 24 Million.

Understanding the contribution Genomics can make to GDP requires an understanding of other factors that go into the bio-economy basket. Below is list of factors that will likely play a major role in the not so distant future; it is non-exhaustive and meant to serve as a scaffold to precipitate further thought experiments:

While the above numbers are merely crude assumptions, one picture emerges rather clearly: industry, in particular pharmaceutical industry, will be a major contributor towards the bio-economy. Therefore, any considerations and interventions that aim at building and enhancing an effective ‘Genomics sector’ in South Africa must take the interests of industry into account properly.

While the government spending on Genomics research (as a % of GERD) will require careful validation, the prospective size of the genetic testing sector will also require further analysis. In the US, the market for cystic fibrosis carrier screening alone is an estimated USD 300 Million [9] with currently 1 million tests carried out p.a. Assuming that 1% of the SA population (52 Million) could be tested by 2030 at a price point of USD 300,-, this market alone could be worth in the order of USD 150 Million.

Conclusion

Overall, considering the possible contribution of the pharmaceutical industry to GDP by 2030, the above used 2.5% of GDP target for the SA bio-economy could be an underestimate. The hypothetical scenario indicates that Genomics has the potential to contribute towards GDP in (South) Africa, for example in the form of government research funding or commercial genetic testing. But, whatever size this contribution could be, the real value-add of Genomics may not be captured easily in USDs and Cents.

Any meaningful assessment of the contribution it can make towards society must take into account what improvements to health care can be created through better understanding of disease mechanisms or drug action, as well as the long-term benefits to health care systems from savings (due to better diagnosis and choice of effective treatments) and to society through positive effects on quality-adjusted life-years (QALY) (which in turn would have a positive knock-on effect on GDP). The above experiment hasn’t taken any of these into account!

Investments made in/by South Africa into Genomics, under the assumption that these have to impact positively on the bio-economy and the country’s GDP within a 15-year time-frame (by 2030), will have to align with industry needs and requirements first and foremost. If one considers a Genomics-led innovation chain and a 15-year impact horizon (the time it can take to develop a new medicine), a meaningful intervention would have to assess its effect on the diagnostic sector (time-to-impact 1+ years); take into account clinical and translational research needs (time-to-impact 2.5+ years); cater to the needs of early-stage ventures (entrepreneurial stage) (time-to-impact 5+ years); and strengthen early-stage discovery-oriented and basic research (time-to-impact 10+ years), in this sequential order.

[6] http://www.engineeringnews.co.za/article/dst-launches-sa-biotechnology-strategy-2014-01-14

[7] A new Battelle report shows genetic and genomic testing is having a major impact on the economy — creating 116,000 jobs and $16.5 billion in annual economic output — and that sustained US leadership in this sector could provide “significant future economic and societal benefits: http://www.labresultsforlife.org/news/Battelle_Impact_Report.pdf

[8] http://www.health24.com/Medical/Meds-and-you/Inside-the-lab/The-pharmaceutical-industry-at-a-glance-20130521

[9] http://www.rncos.com/Press_Releases/US-Cystic-Fibrosis-Carrier-Screening-Market-Swells-to-More-than-USD-300-Million.htm