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Scientist says Covid-19 variant Omicron should not be used to punish SA

The annual Science Forum South Africa has started with more focus on the discovery of the Covid-19 Omicron variant. Picture: Supplied

The annual Science Forum South Africa has started with more focus on the discovery of the Covid-19 Omicron variant. Picture: Supplied

Published Dec 2, 2021

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Pretoria - The swift identification of the new Covid-19 variant called Omicron by scientists in South Africa should not be used to punish the country, but seen as way to be transparent with the world.

This was the sentiment by Dr Tulio de Oliveira of University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Krisp Lab during the opening of the three-day Science Forum South Africa 2021, which started yesterday.

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De Oliveira was among many scientists to plead with the international community to recognise and support the benefits of science.

The talk was made in the wake of the furore over the international travel bans imposed on South Africa and its neighbouring countries owing to the detection of the new variant, said to be highly mutated.

While recounting the work done at Krisp Lab about completing the sequencing of 10 000 genomes, De Oliveira said: “So the news of the week is this new variant which rapidly became the variant of concern, the Omicron, that was detected in South Africa. As I mentioned many times, it does not mean it originated in South Africa.”

According to him, the variant could have come from anywhere through Johannesburg, which hosted the biggest airport in the continent, OR Tambo International Airport.

“It could have come from everywhere and today (yesterday) there was information that it came from the Netherlands before. I am also not saying it is from the Netherlands. What I am saying is ‘do not blame it on South Africa’. What we should do is to highlight that we are the ones that identified it,” he said.

De Oliveira also expressed concern that the “fast identification from the science in South Africa instead of getting recognition and support we get punished by the international world”.

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“And that is something that I, our minister, our president and many of the world leaders are really vocal that you should not punish science. You should really encourage transparency in science,” he said.

Dr Martin Friede, vaccine research co-ordinator at the World Health Organization (WHO) talked about the importance of vaccine technology transfer effort in Africa.

“Unfortunately, when pandemics are here you can’t start doing research… there is no time to start doing research during the pandemic and hope that you are going to catch up with the pandemic. You need to have the infrastructure in place. You need to have the technology in place before the pandemic happens,” Friede said.

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He said that multiple experiences dating back to the 1970s had shown that “if you don’t have the vaccine production then in the event of the pandemic you are going to be the last in the line to receive the vaccine”.

WHO had announced the selection of South Africa to establish and host a messenger ribonucleic acid Covid-19 vaccine production hub.

Friede said messenger ribonucleic acid could be used to make multiple vaccines not only for South Africa, but Southern Africa.

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He said: “Covid we hope will come to an end one day and then what? What will the facilities do? And this is where South Africa is going to have a huge role to play. First of all it is the scientific environment that is going to enable us to make other messenger ribonucleic acid vaccines, vaccines against TB, malaria, and maybe even vaccines against HIV. And these are the diseases that are critical in Africa.

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