German Africa Award 2022. This year’s German Africa prize goes to South Africa-based bioinformatics scientist Tulio de Oliveira, and Virologist Sikhulile Moyo in Botswana for their work identifying the COVID-19 variant omicron.
How did they discover the variant?
Researchers from Botswana and South Africa first sounded the alarm about the world’s first report of the so-called omicron variant. Dr Moyo and his team from the Botswana-Harvard AIDS Institute Partnership in a routine genome sequencing PCR tests, discovered anomalies. Alarmed by the findings, they shared them in the regional research database.
At about the same time, a private laboratory in the South African capital of Pretoria also submitted abnormal data to the South African Network for Genome Surveillance (NGS-SA), which conducted further investigations under the direction of Prof de Oliveira, who had already discovered the first mutation of the Corona virus, the so-called beta variant, at the end of 2020.
With the test results in South Africa, comparison with the transmitted data from Botswana and the close coordination with the colleagues there, the NGS-SA was able to inform WHO, the public an the ministry of health about the discovered variant known as Omicron.
The independent prize jury found that through their research and by reporting the variant to the World Health Organization (WHO), they contributed significantly to a better understanding of the dynamics of the pandemic and the world’s swift response to it.
“Infectious diseases have not only national but continental and global impact so it’s great to be recognized,” said Tulio de Oliveira after hearing of his win. “But honestly, we are not chasing prizes. What really gives us satisfaction is to do high level science and translate that to policies that save lives.”
“Wow, it’s a great honor,” said Zimbabwe-born Sikhulile Moyo, laboratory director at the Botswana Harvard AIDS Institute Partnership. Moyo added that the award doesn’t represent the success of one person, and he was glad to receive it on behalf of many African scientists.
Who are the scientists who discovered the Omicron variant?
Sikhulile Moyo is a Zimbabwean virologist working as the laboratory director of the Botswana–Harvard AIDS Institute Partnership and a research associate at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. He has made a number of significant contributions to studies on the prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV during his career. In addition, he has been responsible for monitoring HIV incidence and has conducted research on HIV mutations associated with drug resistance.
Tulio de Oliveira is a Brazilian, Portuguese, and South African permanent resident professor of bioinformatics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and Stellenbosch University, South Africa, and associate professor of global health at the University of Washington. He is one of South Africa’s leading researchers and embodies the face of South African excellence in his field in various capacities, including professor of bioinformatics at the School for Data Science and Computational Thinking at Stellenbosch University and lecturer at the College of Health Science at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.