The Botswana scientist, who may have discovered the omicronic variant of the coronavirus, says he experienced a roller coaster of emotions, with pride of success accompanied by dismay over travel bans immediately imposed in southern Africa.
“So are you rewarding science? Blacklisting countries? Dr. Sikhulile Moyo, a virologist at Botswana’s Harvard AIDS Institute, told The Associated Press on Thursday.
“The virus does not know passports, knows no boundaries,” he added. “We shouldn’t be geopolitical about the virus. … We must cooperate and understand. “
Two weeks ago, Moyo was doing genomic sequencing of COVID-19 samples in his laboratory in Botswana and noticed three cases that seemed completely different, with an unusual pattern showing multiple mutations. He continued to study the results and by early last week decided to publish the data publicly on the Internet.
Soon, scientists from South Africa said they had reached the same conclusions. An identical case was also identified in Hong Kong.
A new variant of the coronavirus was discovered and was soon named omicron by the World Health Organization. It is currently found in 38 countries and their numbers, including most of Western Europe and the United States. Both the United States and many other countries have imposed flight restrictions to try to contain the emerging threat.
Speaking from his laboratory in Gaborone, the capital of Botswana, Moyo bristled at being described as the man who first identified the omicron.
“Scientists have to work together and the first-to-do-it syndrome has to disappear. We should all be able to be proud that we all contributed in one way or another, ”said the 48-year-old scientist.
In fact, he noted that this option was only recognized as something completely new by comparing it to other viruses on the Internet in a public database shared by scientists.
“The only way to really see something new is to compare it to millions of sequences. That’s why you put it online, ”he said.
Moyo, a Zimbabwean who is also a Harvard School of Public Health Research Fellow, a married father of three and a gospel singer, expressed pride in the way he and his foreign colleagues openly announced their findings and sounded the alarm. The rest of the world.
“We are thrilled that we may have given a warning signal that may have prevented many deaths and many infections,” he said.
Omicron amazed scientists with more than 50 mutations.
“This is a big leap in the evolution of the virus, and it has many more mutations than we expected,” said Tulio de Oliveira, director of the Center for Epidemic Response and Innovation in South Africa, who taught Moyo when he earned his Ph.D. D. in Virology, Stellenbosch University in South Africa.
Little is known about this option, and the world is nervously watching it. It is unclear if this causes severe illness in humans or if vaccination can be avoided. But early evidence suggests it may be more infectious and more effective at reinfection in people who have had an attack of COVID-19.
In the coming weeks, labs around the world will be working to figure out what to expect from the omicron and how dangerous it is.
“What matters is collaboration and input,” Moyo said. “I think we should value such cooperation because it will bring great science and great contribution. We need each other, and this is the most important thing. “
South Africa is seeing a sharp increase in infections that can be caused by omicron. The country reported more than 16,000 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday, up from about 200 a day in mid-November.
The number of omicron cases confirmed by genetic sequencing in Botswana has risen to 19, while South Africa has more than 200 cases. So far, most cases have been in people who have not been vaccinated.
“I really hope for the data we see that the vaccinated should have good protection,” Moyo said. “We must try to get as many people as possible to get vaccinated.”
Moyo warned that the world “must go to the mirror and look at itself” and make sure that 1.3 billion Africans are not left behind in the vaccination campaign.
He believes that earlier research and investment in the fight against HIV and AIDS has helped build Botswana’s capacity in genetic sequencing. This made it easier for researchers to transition to work with coronavirus, he said.
Amid the COVID-19 crisis, Moyo finds cause for optimism.
“What gives me hope is that the world now speaks the same language,” Moyo said, explaining that the pandemic has sparked a renewed global commitment to research and surveillance.
He added that the pandemic was also a wake-up call for Africa.
“I think our politicians have realized the importance of science, the importance of research,” Moyo said. “I think COVID has intensified, made us realize that we need to focus on the big things and invest in our health systems, invest in our primary health care.”
He added: “I think this is a great lesson for humanity.”