TheCentre for Epidemic Response and Innovation (CERI) has been conferred an international accolade by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)’s highly regarded Technological Review bi-monthly magazine as a one of the 10 technological breakthroughs of 2022 for its ground-breaking work in identifying and tracking Covid-19 variants.
Based at the Stellenbosch University (SU), CERI boasts some of the most sophisticated and cutting edge equipment making it the most powerful genomic sequencing lab in Africa. The centre is under the leadership of Professor Tulio de Oliveira, the world-acclaimed bio-informatician who was instrumental in discovering – Omicron – a new variant of COVID-19 in South Africa in December 2020. The discovery helped to alert the world about the Beta and Omicron variants of SARS-CoV-2.
Pivotal role of Professor De Oliviera
Professor De Oliveira is currently a professor of bio-informatics at SU’s School for Data Science and Computational Thinking, the Faculty of Science and the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences. He is also the director of the KwaZulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform (KRISP) at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. CERI is envisaged to be officially launched later this year.
The MIT’s annual list highlights the top technological advances – from medicine to energy to digital technologies – that will have the biggest impact on the world in the years to come. Annually, a select of the magazine’s reporters and editors survey a wide range of topics and then identify advances that have potential to impact humanity’s lives in meaningful ways.
Reacting to the news about the CERI global recognition, Professor De Oliveria said, “We felt very honoured to be listed as the main group leading genomics surveillance of Covid-19 in the world, which was selected as one of the ten breakthrough technologies in 2022 by MIT as I like to believe that MIT knows a little bit about cutting-edge technologies.”
In addition, he said: “As part of this process, we also received a visit of a photographic crew from MIT. They were very impressed with our new state-of-the-art data and genomics facilities in South Africa and featured the new Biomedical Research Institute (BMRI) of Stellenbosch University in its feature piece on genomics surveillance.”
Responding to future epidemics
His counterpart, Professor Kanshu Rajaratnam, who is the director of the SU School for Data Science and Computational Thinking, also expressed excitement about the MIT’s announcement. Said Professor Rajaratnam “SU has been intentional about providing multidisciplinary solutions to large problems. This honour is a great example of outcomes due to this multidisciplinary world that Professor De Oliveira operates in. CERI would operate in a multidisciplinary space to help Africa in its future epidemic response.”
Helping build Africa’s capacity
CERI will leverage its position as the biggest genomics facility in Africa, to help build capacity in other African countries. This will strengthen its support programme to the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) and the World Health Organisation (WHO). To date CERI has already received fellows from 21 African countries to be trained in genomics, bio-informatics, big data and artificial intelligence analysis.
Early last month, a high-level international delegation, led by the WHO director-general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, visited the SU’s Tygerberg Campus. CERI is a partner-member of the South African mRNA Vaccine Consortium (SAMVAC) and it has been handpicked by the WHO to become the first Covid mRNA Vaccine Technology Transfer Hub. According to the WHO, the objective of the hub is to develop vaccine research and manufacturing capacity on the African continent.
President Ramaphosa’s visit
In January this year President Cyril Ramaphosa and Dr Patrick Soon-Shiong also visited CERI and the BMRI to view the facilities’ top of the range equipment. Dr Soon-Shiong, who is the biotech investor of NantAfrica – a division of NantWorks, recently launched Covid-19 and the cancer vaccine initiative in South African in collaboration with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research and the South African Medical Research Council.
High-level visits encouraging
Professor De Oliviera welcomed these high level visits, saying it is encouraging to see that “the R1,5 billion investment of Stellenbosch University on its campus is attracting international attention. We are very proud to be part of this and will work hard to help South Africa and Africa to continue to be listed as a top technological setting in the world,” he concluded.