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Africa's Covid-19 scientists make Time magazine’s most influential people in the world list

24 May 2022 - 10:30 By TimesLIVE
Prof Tulio de Oliveira.
Prof Tulio de Oliveira.
Image: Supplied/SU

Prof Tulio de Oliveira and Dr Sikhulile Moyo have been selected for this year’s Time 100 Most Influential People list.

De Oliveira is a professor of bioinformatics, holding a joint appointment at Stellenbosch University’s (SU) School for Data Science and Computational Thinking, the faculty of science and the faculty of medicine and health sciences.

Moyo is an SU alumnus who obtained his PhD in medical virology at the university in 2016, and now serves as laboratory director at the Botswana Harvard Aids Institute Partnership (BHP).

The two scientists are being recognised for their work in the field of genomics and epidemiology. In November 2021, they led the multidisciplinary team who discovered the Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2, which quickly became the dominant variant of the virus globally.

The university said South Africans will remember the occasion with some chagrin. Initially dubbed the “SA variant”, its discovery resulted in stigma, travel bans and considerable public animosity towards De Oliveira and his team. However, it soon became clear that though the variant had been discovered in SA, it did not originate here, and the safety measures seemed more punitive than preventive.

Dr Sikhulile Moyo.
Dr Sikhulile Moyo.
Image: Supplied/SU

This, says De Oliveira, was an important lesson that has since shaped international responses to the pandemic.

Other headlines called it the “Botswana virus”, or the “Southern African variant” detected by laboratories in Botswana and SA.

“It was a like a rollercoaster of emotions to see the world react with travel bans for Southern African countries,” says Moyo.

Undeterred by the negativity, the group of African scientists came together as a unified team and have generated more than 100,000 genomes in the past two years, said SU.

“This acknowledgment by Time magazine proves that Africa’s cutting-edge research has a global impact, and further establishes Prof De Oliveira and Dr Moyo as international leaders in their field,” says Prof Wim de Villiers, SU’s rector and vice-chancellor.

“Their research and subsequent discoveries enabled governments worldwide to make scientifically informed decisions about Covid-19 and the Omicron variant, and their inclusion in Time’s list is a just reward for their hard work and expertise.”

De Oliveira is the founding director of the university’s new Centre for Epidemic Response and Innovation, for which he has already raised more than R300m in funding. He is the recipient of numerous awards and accolades. These include the SA Medical Research Council gold medal, the health minister’s special Covid-19 award at the seventh national Batho Pele excellence awards in March 2022, and being included in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s prestigious Technological Review list of the top 10 technological breakthroughs of 2022.

Moyo, in addition to his position at BHP, is also a research associate of the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, and an adjunct senior lecturer at the University of Botswana. He has been serving as a member of Botswana’s Covid-19 presidential task force and continues to contribute to that country’s national response. 

One of his biggest contributions has been in the field of mother-to-child HIV transmission studies, said SU. “These have had a significant impact on preventing HIV transmission, improving birth outcomes, HIV incidence, diversity and drug resistance, as well as multiple pathogen genomics projects involving hepatitis, norovirus, sapovirus, human papillomavirus and tuberculosis.”

He is also a member of the steering committee of the PANGEA-HIV network, which analyses the dynamics of the HIV epidemic, and translates the findings into information that can be used to target interventions more effectively.

Stellenbosch University said both researchers are passionate about leading the fight against epidemics from an African perspective, and highlight the importance of local and international collaboration in battling the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The only way we can succeed is by collaborating and continuously sharing ideas. Success in science comes through genuine collaboration,” said Moyo. “Working with leading scientists at Stellenbosch such as Prof De Oliveira and the Network for Genomic Surveillance in SA has been so fulfilling for me, and has exposed me to so much great, transparent science and capacity building.”

De Oliveira said: “Other than patience, the secret to leading networks is to create a group identity with a common goal, for a common good.

“During the pandemic, what we did in SA was to remind hundreds of researchers that we’re in a very strong position to respond scientifically, because we have the facilities — most of them constructed to deal with HIV and TB — and a lot of experience in dealing with infectious viruses and respiratory pathogens. And we also have the willingness of our government to follow our scientific advice.”

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