The German Federal Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, conferred a distinguished German Africa Award to two outstanding global scientists who discovered the deadly Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2, which became the dominant variant of the Covid-19 pandemic globally.
Transmissible variant to date
They are Professor Tulio de Oliveira and Dr Sikhulile Moyo who are both linked to the University of Stellenbosch (SU). This is their second accolade after they were selected a few months ago for this years’ Time 100 Most Influential People list. In November 2021, the pair led a multidisciplinary genomics and epidemiology team who discovered that the Omicron variant is the most transmissible variant to date for all age groups, including both adults and children.
De Oliveira is currently a professor of Bioinformatics and holds a joint appointment at SU’s 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 currently serves as laboratory director at the Botswana Harvard AIDS Institute Partnership (BHP).
Outstanding personalities in Africa
Since 1993, the German Africa Foundation has been trying to present a “differentiated image of Africa” by honouring outstanding personalities from the African continent. These are individuals who have made exceptional contribution in areas such as democracy, peace, human rights, sustainable development and research and art and culture or social issues in Africa. The award winners are selected each year by an independent 20-member jury.
In recognising De Oliveira and Moyo, the foundation noted they “are shining examples of expertise, integrity and courage and also prove what many in Germany and Europe do not believe to be possible due to the prevailing distorted image of Africa: that top medical research is also at home in Africa and that the continent has successful crisis management in the global pandemic from which Europe can and should learn.”
Breaking negative perceptions
Welcoming the award, De Oliveira said the significance of the award lies in the fact that it shows that world-class work, such as research on infectious diseases, can be done in Africa. “This breaks the perception that when you think of Africa, you only think of poverty and the lack of technology, etc. During the pandemic, South Africa was a global leader in scientific research” said de Oliveira, adding that “With the right investment you can create centres of excellence that can have a massive influence in the whole world and in fact protect the whole world.”
De Oliveira said high-level science and high-level technology can be done in South Africa and can have a big effect on not only health, but also on other critical areas such as business. He said they had to be assertive and defend their breakthrough of the Omicron variant. In the end the research was scientifically authenticated by top global science bodies and was replicated first in Europe and ultimately endorsed by the WHO.
Numerous awards and accolades
De Oliveira is the founding director of the SU’s new Centre for Epidemic Response and Innovation (CERI) for which he has already raised more than R300 million in funding. In 2017 he also led the KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform (KRISP). He received numerous awards and accolades and these include:
- the South African Medical Research Council gold medal
- the South African 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.
Apart from holding a position at BHP, Moyo is also a research associate of the Harvard T.H. 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 taskforce and continues to contribute to that country’s national response.
He is also the pioneer in HIV research and a former co-chair of the laboratory technologist committee for the global AIDS Clinical Trials Group (ACTG) and the International Maternal, Paediatric, Adolescent AIDS Clinical Trials Network (IMPAACT).
One of Moyo’s biggest contributions has been in the field of mother-to-child HIV transmission studies. These have had a significant impact on, among others:
- preventing HIV transmission
- improving birth outcomes
- HIV incidence
- diversity and drug resistance,
- multiple pathogen genomics projects involving hepatitis,
- human papillomavirus and
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.
Prof Wim de Villiers, SU rector and vice-chancellor, heaped praise on the scientists. “Their research and subsequent discoveries enabled governments around the world to make scientifically informed decisions about Covid-19 and the Omicron variant, and this award is a justification of their hard work and expertise,” he said, adding “Awards like this further enables institutions of higher education in Africa to nurture future generations of scholars and intellectual leaders on the continent.”