AP Interview: Scientist Says Omicron Was a Group Discovery
Botswana scientist who may have discovered omicron variant of coronavirus says he’s been on an ’emotional roller coaster’, with pride in accomplishment followed by dismay at immediate travel bans imposed on countries southern Africa.
âIs this how you reward science? By blacklisting countries? Dr Sikhulile Moyo, a virologist at the Botswana Harvard AIDS Institute Partnership, said Thursday evening in an interview with The Associated Press.
“The virus does not know passports, it does not know borders,” he added. âWe shouldn’t be geopolitical about the virus.â¦ We should collaborate and understand.â
Moyo was doing genomic sequencing of COVID-19 samples in his laboratory in Botswana two weeks ago and noticed three cases that looked radically different, with an unusual pattern showing multiple mutations. He continued to study the results and early last week decided to publish the data on the Internet.
Soon scientists from South Africa said they had made the same conclusions. And an identical case in Hong Kong has also been identified.
A new variant of the coronavirus had been discovered, and soon the World Health Organization named it omicron. It has now been identified in 38 and more countries, including much of Western Europe and the United States. And the United States and many other countries have imposed flight restrictions in an attempt to contain the emerging threat.
Speaking from his lab in Botswana’s capital Gaborone, Moyo bristled at being described as the man who identified the first omicron.
âScientists should work together and the ‘who did this first’ syndrome should go away. We should all be able to be proud of having all contributed in one way or another, âsaid the 48-year-old scientist.
In fact, he noted that the variant turned out to be something entirely new only when comparing it to other viruses online in a public database shared by scientists.
âThe only way to really see that you are seeing something new is to compare it with millions of footage. That’s why you are filing it online, âhe said.
Born in Zimbabwe, Moyo – who is also an associate researcher at Harvard School of Public Health, married with three children and a gospel singer – expressed pride in how he and his international colleagues have been transparent about their decisions. discoveries and sounded the alarm bells for the rest of the world.
“We are delighted that we have probably given a warning signal that could have prevented many deaths and many infections,” he said.
Omicron surprised scientists because it had over 50 mutations.
âIt’s a big leap in the evolution of the virus and there are a lot more mutations than we expected,â said Tulio de Oliveira, director of the Center for Epidemic Response and Innovation in South Africa, who taught Moyo when he got his doctorate. D. in Virology from the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa.
Little is known about the variant and the world is watching nervously. It is not known if this makes people more seriously ill or may escape the vaccine. But early evidence suggests it may be more contagious and more effective at re-infecting people who have had a fight with COVID-19.
In the coming weeks, labs around the world will work to find out what to expect from omicron and how dangerous it is.
âWhat’s important is collaboration and contribution,â Moyo said. âI think we should value this kind of collaboration because it will generate great science and great contributions. We need each other, and this is the most important.
South Africa is seeing a dramatic increase in infections that could be caused by omicron. The country reported more than 16,000 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday, up from around 200 a day in mid-November.
The number of cases of omicron confirmed by genetic sequencing in Botswana has risen to 19, while South Africa has recorded more than 200. So far, most cases are in people who have not been vaccinated.
“I have a lot of hope from the data we are seeing that people who have been vaccinated should be able to enjoy a lot of protection,” Moyo said. “We should try to encourage as many people as possible to get the vaccine.”
Moyo warned the world “needs to look at itself in a mirror” and ensure that the 1.3 billion Africans are not left behind in the vaccination campaign.
He gave credit to previous research and investment in the fight against HIV and AIDS along with building the capacity of Botswana to do genetic sequencing. This made it easier for researchers to move on to work on the coronavirus, he said.
Amid the COVID-19 crisis, Moyo finds reason to be optimistic.
“What gives me hope is that the world is speaking the same language now,” Moyo said, explaining that the pandemic has seen a new global commitment to scientific research and surveillance.
He added that the pandemic has also been a wake-up call for Africa.
âI think our decision makers have realized the importance of science, the importance of research,â Moyo said. âI think COVID has amplified, made us realize that we need to focus on the things that are important and invest in our health systems, invest in our primary health care.
He added: “I think this is a great lesson for mankind.”