The AP Interview: Scientist Says Omicron Was A Group Find

The Botswana scientist who may have identified the omicron strain of the coronavirus says he has been on a “rollercoaster of emotions,” with pleasure in his success followed by disappointment at the travel prohibitions imposed on southern African countries.

“Is that how science is rewarded?” By blacklisting nations?” Dr. Sikhulile Moyo, a virologist at the Botswana Harvard AIDS Institute Partnership, told The Associated Press in an interview Thursday night.

“The virus does not recognize passports or borders,” he continued. “We should not play geopolitics with the virus.” We should be working together and knowing each other.”

Moyo was undertaking genome sequencing of COVID-19 samples at his lab in Botswana two weeks ago when he spotted three instances that appeared to be drastically different, with an odd pattern suggesting numerous mutations. He kept researching the results until early last week, when he decided to make the data public on the internet.

Soon after, scientists in South Africa announced the same findings. An analogous example in Hong Kong was also discovered.

A novel coronavirus variety had been found, and it was quickly given the name omicron by the World Health Organization. It has already been confirmed in 38 nations, including much of Western Europe and the United States. In addition, the United States and many other countries have enacted flying restrictions in an attempt to curb the developing threat.

Moyo, speaking from his lab in Gaborone, Botswana’s capital, balked at being referred to be the man who discovered omicron.

“Scientists should collaborate, and the ‘who did it first’ mentality should be abandoned.” “We should all be able to feel pleased that we all participated in some manner,” the 48-year-old scientist remarked.

In fact, he emphasized that the variety was only discovered to be something wholly new by comparing it to other viruses online in a public database maintained by experts.

“The only way to tell if you’re seeing something novel is to compare it against millions of other sequences.” “That’s why you do it online,” he explained.

In this September 2015 photo provided by Botswana-Harvard Partnership, Dr. Sikhulile Moyo, virologist at the Botswana Harvard AIDS Institute Partnership, speaks at a study team meeting for the Botswana Combination Prevention Project (BCPP) in Botswana. Moyo, who may well have discovered the omicron variant, says he's been through a “rollercoaster of emotions” — the pride of accomplishment followed by dismay over the travel bans and flight restrictions immediately slapped on southern African countries. (Dominic Chavez/Botswana-Harvard Partnership via AP)

Moyo, who was born in Zimbabwe and is also a research associate at Harvard’s School of Public Health, a married father of three, and a gospel singer, took delight in the manner he and his international colleagues were open about their results and raised the alarm to the rest of the globe.

“We’re delighted because we may have given a warning signal that might have prevented many fatalities and illnesses,” he added.

Scientists were taken aback by Omicron’s more than 50 mutations.

“It is a tremendous step in the development of the virus and contains many more mutations than we expected,” said Tulio de Oliveira, head of South Africa’s Center for Epidemic Response and Innovation, who tutored Moyo while he was obtaining his Ph.D. in virology at Stellenbosch University.

Little is known about the variation, and the world is watching with bated breath. It’s unclear if it makes patients worse or allows them to avoid the vaccination. However, preliminary research shows that it may be more infectious and effective at re-infecting patients who have already been infected with COVID-19.

In the following weeks, laboratories all across the world will be trying to determine what to anticipate from omicron and how harmful it is.

“What matters is teamwork and participation,” Moyo explained. “I believe that sort of collaboration should be valued because it will result in excellent discoveries and tremendous contributions.” The most essential thing is that we need each other.”

South Africa is experiencing a major increase in illnesses, which may be caused by omicron. More than 16,000 new COVID-19 cases were recorded in the country on Friday, up from approximately 200 each day in mid-November.

Botswana now has 19 verified omicron instances based on genetic sequencing, whereas South Africa has more than 200. So far, the majority of infections have occurred in persons who have not been immunized.

“I have a lot of hope based on the evidence that we have that individuals who have been vaccinated should have a lot of protection,” Moyo added. “We should attempt to get as many individuals immunized as possible.”

Moyo cautioned that the world “must look in the mirror and look at themselves” to ensure that Africa’s 1.3 billion people are not left behind in the immunization campaign.

He attributed Botswana’s potential for genetic sequencing to previous research and investment in the battle against HIV and AIDS. According to him, this made it easy for researchers to shift their focus to the coronavirus.

Moyo sees some reason to be optimistic in the midst of the COVID-19 problem.

“What gives me optimism is that the world is now speaking the same language,” Moyo said, noting that the epidemic has resulted in a renewed global commitment to scientific study and surveillance.

He also stated that the outbreak has served as a wake-up call for Africa.

“I believe our policymakers have recognized the value of science and research,” Moyo remarked. “I think COVID has highlighted, has made us understand that we need to focus on the key things and invest in our health systems, in our basic health care.”

“I think it’s a tremendous lesson for mankind,” he continued.

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