In a turn of good news for Stellenbosch University, two scientists associated with the university have been chosen for 2022’s TIME 100 Most Influential People – a prestigious list that honours those who have made incredible contributions to the world.
The list is voted for by TIME’s international network of editors, thought leaders and past recipients of the accolade, which is certainly no small feat.
The two chosen are Prof Tulio de Oliveria and Dr Sikhulile Moyo, leaders of the team that discovered the Omicron variant – yes, the variant associated as being the ‘South African variant’ of COVID-19, which was also the most dominant variant of the virus globally.
“Scientists in Africa have been monitoring and sequencing pathogens since long before the pandemic. The world benefited from this network when scientists including Sikhulile Moyo, laboratory director for the Botswana-Harvard HIV Reference Laboratory, and Tulio de Oliveira, director of South Africa’s Centre for Epidemic Response and Innovation, identified and reported the emergence of the Omicron variant last November. It was a transformational moment and a shift in paradigm—one that for me symbolized that excellence in science can originate in Africa,” writes John Nkengasong of TIME.
Despite its stigma and later proof that the variant did not originate here in South Africa, the identification of the variant was imperative and globally praised, with SA scientists receiving applause for their transparency.
The travel bans, punitive measures and global reactions are also acknowledged by the two scientists.
“It was like a rollercoaster of emotions to see the world react with travel bans for Southern African countries,” says Moyo. It was an “important lesson” that has since shaped international responses to the pandemic, notes De Oliveria of the punitive measures overtaking preventive ones.
However, despite some of the backlash, African scientists unified and have generated over 100 000 genomes in the past two years.
As for our Most Influential Listers, here’s a little more about them:
De Oliveria is a professor of Bioinformatics and holds a joint appointment at the university’s School for Data Science and Computational Thinking, the Faculty of Science and the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences – a tall order of influence! Dr Moyo on the other hand is an alumnus of Stellenbosch University (SU) who serves as the laboratory director at the Botswana Harvard AIDS Institute Partnership, an incredible achievement. Moyo obtained his PhD in Medical Virology at SU in 2016.
The two are making waves in the world of science, and are being recognised in this category for their work in genomics and epidemiology.
De Oliveria is also the founding director of SU’s new Centre for Epidemic Response and Innovation, for which he raised over R300 million in funding. Adding to his list of accolades are the South African Medical Research Council gold medal, the health minister’s special COVID-19 award and being included in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s prestigious Technological Review list in the top 10 tech breakthroughs of 2022.
Moyo serves additionally as a research associate of the Harvard T.H Chan School of Public Health, an adjunct senior lecturer at the University of Botswana, and a member of Botswana’s COVID-19 presidential task force. He is also a pioneer in HIV research and a former co-chair of the laboratory technologist committee for the global AIDS Clinical Trials Group, as well as the international Maternal, Paediatric Adolescent AIDS Clinical Trials Network.
Both agree that collaboration is key for the common good, especially in scientific and technological pursuits. Knowing that leaders of such important fields are not only African, but associated with universities so close to home is a great inspiration for future innovators to come.
Picture: llustration by Brian Lutz for Time