In a historic achievement, not one, but two scientists associated with Stellenbosch University (SU) – Prof Tulio de Oliveira and Dr Sikhulile Moyo – have been selected for this year’s TIME 100 Most Influential People list.
This annual list features individuals who have made the most significant contributions to our world, as identified and voted for by TIME magazine’s international network of editors, thought leaders and past recipients of this prestigious accolade.
De Oliveira is a professor of Bioinformatics holding 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, in turn, 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).
The two scientists are being recognised for their work in the field of genomics and epidemiology. In November 2021, they led the multidisciplinary team who discovered the Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2, which quickly became the dominant variant of the virus globally.
South Africans will remember the occasion with some chagrin. Initially dubbed the “South African variant”, its discovery resulted in stigma, travel bans and considerable public animosity towards De Oliveira and his team. However, it soon became clear that although the variant had been discovered in South Africa, it did not originate here, and the safety measures seemed more punitive than preventative. This, says De Oliveira, was an important lesson that has since shaped international responses to the pandemic.
Other headlines called it the “Botswana virus”, or the “Southern African variant” detected by laboratories in Botswana and South Africa.
“It was like a rollercoaster of emotions to see the world react with travel bans for Southern African countries,” says Moyo.
Yet, undeterred by the negativity, the group of African scientists came together as a unified team and have generated over 100 000 genomes in the past two years.
“This acknowledgement by TIME magazine proves that Africa’s cutting-edge research has a global impact, and further establishes Prof De Oliveira and Dr Moyo as international leaders in their field,” says Prof Wim de Villiers, SU’s Rector and Vice-Chancellor.
“Their research and subsequent discoveries enabled governments worldwide to make scientifically informed decisions about Covid-19 and the Omicron variant, and their inclusion in TIME’s list is a just reward for their hard work and expertise. SU is immensely proud of their achievements and will continue to enable groundbreaking research with real-world impact.”
Research work and accolades
De Oliveira is the founding director of the University’s new Centre for Epidemic Response and Innovation (CERI), for which he has already raised more than R300 million in funding. CERI is based in the School for Data Science and Computational Thinking and operates from both the world-class Biomedical Research Institute at the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences on SU’s Tygerberg Campus and from offices on the Stellenbosch Campus.
He is the recipient of numerous awards and accolades. 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 is included in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s prestigious Technological Review list of the top 10 technological breakthroughs of 2022.
Moyo, in addition to his position at BHP, 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 task force and continues to contribute to that country’s national response. Moreover, this pioneer in HIV research is 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 his biggest contributions has been in the field of mother-to-child HIV transmission studies. These have had a significant impact on preventing HIV transmission, improving birth outcomes, HIV incidence, diversity and drug resistance, as well as multiple pathogen genomics projects involving hepatitis, norovirus, sapovirus, human papillomavirus and tuberculosis. 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.
Both researchers are passionate about leading the fight against epidemics from an African perspective and highlight the importance of local and international collaboration in battling the current Covid pandemic.
“The only way we can succeed is by collaborating and continuously sharing ideas. Success in science comes through genuine collaboration,” says Moyo.
“Working with leading scientists at Stellenbosch such as Prof De Oliveira and the Network for Genomic Surveillance in South Africa has been so fulfilling for me, and has exposed me to so much great, transparent science and capacity building.”
“Other than patience, the secret to leading networks is to create a group identity with a common goal, for a common good,” says De Oliveira.
“During the pandemic, what we did in South Africa was to remind hundreds of researchers that we’re in a very strong position to respond scientifically because we have the facilities – most of them constructed to deal with HIV and TB – and a lot of experience in dealing with infectious viruses and respiratory pathogens. And we also have the willingness of our government to follow our scientific advice.”
This sound strategy has put De Oliveira and his team at the leading edge of the global scientific community’s research, planning and swift response to SARS-CoV-2. It also positions SU as one of the key role players globally in the fight against the pandemic. De Oliveira has been in frequent contact with President Cyril Ramaphosa, who visited the University’s new laboratory during the pandemic, as well as with the director of the World Health Organisation and the heads of the centres for disease control and prevention for the United States as well as Africa and Europe.
“The fact that SU has produced two of TIME’s most influential people in the world is proof that the University and our group are deeply committed to truth, to conducting scientific research of a very high quality in South Africa and on the continent, and, most importantly, to capacitating the next leaders of Africa,” he says.
To help equip Africa’s next generation of scientists, the stellar work by De Oliveira and his team has earned SU a substantial award from the Rockefeller Foundation to host 100 African fellows, of whom the institution has already welcomed 51 from 24 African nations. In May 2022, De Oliveira also presented at the Nobel Symposium of Medicine in Sweden and will be the keynote speaker at a SU-hosted Nobel Symposium in Africa – the first to take place outside Sweden.
“In a country such as South Africa, where people tend to be very good at highlighting their differences, it’s important also to highlight what we can achieve when we collaborate for the greater good,” De Oliveira concludes.