Brazilian scientist is awarded for discovering the omicron variant

This Friday (11/26) the Brazilian Tulio de Oliveira, who has lived in South Africa since 1997, and the Zimbabwean Sikhulile Moyo received the 2022 Germany Africa Prize, presented by the German Federal Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, at a ceremony in Berlin . The two scientists discovered the omicron variant of covid-19, for which they were recognized and also received insults and threats.

Oliveira is a researcher in biotechnology and directs the Center for Epidemic Response and Innovation (Ceri) at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. He had already been highlighted by the scientific magazine Nature as one of the ten personalities who made a difference in 2021 and entered the list of the hundred most influential of the American magazine Time this year.

Son of a Mozambican mother, Oliveira moved to South Africa when he was 21 and has always felt connected to the African continent. Today, he is one of the country’s leading virologists, specializing in epidemics.

Oliveira was a professor and advisor to Moyo, who is now one of the most renowned AIDS researchers in Africa. With the emergence of the pandemic, Moyo, laboratory director at the Harvard-Botswana HIV/AIDS Institute, focused on covid-19 and contributed to the discovery of a hitherto unknown pattern of the virus, in November 2021.

“The number of mutations was simply unbelievable”, recalls the scientist, in an interview with DW. Moyo compared the results with existing analyzes and published the information on the internet. Just a few hours after Moyo, scientists at Ceri, headed by Oliveira, also detected the dangerous variant. Both worked closely together.

Alerts for a new, highly contagious variant quickly went around the world – almost as quickly as the variant became dominant. The World Health Organization (WHO) named it after the omicron.

The prize has been awarded by the German Foundation for Africa since 1993 to African personalities who, in the jury’s view, are committed to peace, reconciliation and social progress. Former President of Botswana Ketumile Masire, Somali women’s rights activist Waris Dirie and Kenyan IT pioneer Juliana Rotich are some of the winners of past editions.

high level science

“It’s great to be recognized”, says Oliveira in an interview with DW. “But honestly, we don’t chase awards. What really satisfies us is doing top-notch science and translating that into life-saving policy. And we care deeply about empowering other African scientists.”

For your colleague Moyo, accepting the award on behalf of many African researchers was a great honor. He recalls that the omicron variant was only identified as something completely new thanks to comparison with other viruses in a public database. “The award represents many people. Without collaboration, we would not be where we are in such a short time”, he says.

Criticism of the most developed countries

Oliveira is also pleased with the achievements of African scientists. “The pandemic showed that the African continent can be a scientific leader. Many were surprised by this, but we were not. We have invested a lot in the last 20 years, in people and equipment”, he explains to DW.

However, he says he is disappointed about how more developed countries have been so concerned about themselves during the pandemic and failed to help others. “In the beginning, they accumulated tests, protective equipment and, later, vaccines”, he criticizes. “Also, there were the ineffective travel bans. That was very sad. The world had an opportunity to respond together to a global problem, and chose a nationalistic approach that helped nobody.”

Hostility instead of glory

After the discovery of the omicron, the world went into “panic mode” again. Borders were closed and flights to and from southern Africa were canceled. The authors of the discovery were antagonized and even received death threats. “I got calls from people complaining that I had spoiled their vacation. Many said ‘you scientists talk too much, look what you’ve done’. It was very uncomfortable,” says Moyo.

Even so, the researcher is pleased to have discovered the new variant: “We are happy to have alerted the world. Many infections were prevented.”

The pandemic has also affected Moyo’s private life, admits the father of three. He finds balance in his faith and gospel music, and has released two albums. “The pandemic brought us down, it reminded us of what’s important in life. Friends were out of work or died. These were dark times. We were surrounded by the virus and we were all thinking ‘is this the end?’ this period,” he says.

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