Goats and Soda : NPR

Sikhulile Moyo, laboratory director at the Botswana-Harvard AIDS Institute and a research associate at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, led the team that identified the omicron variant.

Leabaneng Natasha Moyo

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Leabaneng Natasha Moyo

Sikhulile Moyo, laboratory director at the Botswana-Harvard AIDS Institute and a research associate at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, led the team that identified the omicron variant.

Leabaneng Natasha Moyo

Sikhulile Moyo leads the team of scientists who first identified the omicron variant of COVID-19 in November 2021. It continues to dominate the world. Moyo directs the laboratory for the Botswana AIDS Institute – Harvard and is a research associate with the Harvard School of Public Health.

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Moyo is anxious to see the world’s reaction to the more transmissible variant. Other countries have closed travel and trade with South African countries, including Botswana, even as they discovered the variant was already within their borders. In fact, it was later discovered that this variant had been circulating in the Netherlands a week before the announcement from Africa.

“How do you reward countries that warn you about potentially dangerous pathogens with a travel ban? My country has been put on the red list and I’m not happy about it,” Moyo said. told NPR.

NPR has reached out to Moyo to see what he’s been up to – and thinking about – since this landmark discovery.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You have discovered the omicron. Did Omicron detect you?

I got COVID. Interestingly, the person who discovered the omicron received the omicron.

I had three days with very severe symptoms of COVID, and I had to stay home. So I would say light to heavy, but not too heavy.

Then I had long COVID. I’ve been struggling for almost three months trying to restore lung volume, breathing rate. Walking, I am tired. Suddenly, COVID made [blood] My sugar got worse, and I had to change my diabetes dosage. I have to upgrade my potion, because it’s out of control [my diabetes] like the way it was.

These are the complications that come with COVID, while people think that COVID is gone.

Do you think the world has made any progress in learning not to blame?

There is a global awakening. The events surrounding the discovery of the omicron have shown us the triumph of science but the failure of global health policy.

While we suffer, we are the catalyst to make people aware of the value of global public health – that we cannot look inward, because viruses know no borders.

You see the response to monkeypox is different from the response to COVID. No one has been blacklisted for anyone from monkeypox endemic areas.

Has your work changed because of this discovery – are you and your lab collaborating more with scientists around the world?

Right! We have established a partnership with CDC Africa. We have formed the so-called Pathogenic Genes Initiative, a network of labs that are working together and we have a lot of training needs.

I was named one of TIME magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in 2022. That gave us a voice to share our experiences, but also access to a lot of collaborations that I never had before. now think i will. That is really pushing us forward.

Have you made more groundbreaking omicron discoveries?

Earlier this year, around April/May, BA.4 and BA.5 were detected, and we spotted them in Botswana a few days after their discovery in South Africa. And these are the variations that have taken over the world. Some of the questions that arise are: What is happening in southern Africa that makes [the region] seems to be detecting more variation?

What is unique in southern Africa, especially in Botswana and South Africa, is the ability to detect these variants in near-real time thanks to the genome sequencing of established pathogens. [examining DNA to identify it or see if it’s changing]. We think it’s not that they aren’t circulating elsewhere, it’s just that maybe we’re digging deeper.

We always conduct genetic sequencing of pathogens. The most supplied resources in the world, in sequence, are of course the United Kingdom and the United States, and many regions in Europe. But I think the system, real-time, sampling and sequencing [in southern Africa] was very, very helpful.

How did southern Africa become so good at finding new variants and sub-variants?

South Africa is an HIV hotspot. We got through tough times. I think we took advantage of this to find a solution for ourselves. With funding – from PEPFAR and from other international agencies, US institutes, some donors – southern Africa has begun to deploy HIV-focused disease genomes.

Some of us have been involved in population-based sequencing to understand virus movement, to characterize transmission dynamics – and that has spread to malaria, the disease. TB. And we used those technologies to quickly adapt to SARS-CoV-2. That is the strength of southern Africa.

We are thinking even beyond COVID. We are preparing ourselves to be able to adapt to pathogen detection. If one [new] When an outbreak occurs, we should be able to quickly check within 24 to 36 hours what it is.

The new subvariables seem to be getting better at recreate everyone. What does that mean?

BA.4 and BA.5 are masters of the immune system’s ability to ward off a tantrum. Secondary variables may induce an immune response, but lower intensity than we have seen before.

As immunity declines, that’s where I worry: How far can we keep our current levels of immunity?

Vaccine immunity still offers some protection against severe disease. We know you can get an infection, but you can’t be hospitalized with BA.4 and BA.5.

It can be a little rough. Many people are spending their days at home and [developing] COVID long after that.

What do you think should happen next?

Research, training, and development cost a lot of money, but as cases dwindle, people forget that we need to make sure these systems are maintained. That’s one of the challenges: Can we sustain some of the innovations we’ve developed during a very difficult time of our lives during COVID?

The virus is still finding some way out of immune pressure.

And is there always the possibility of a more malicious variant?

The variant that will actually prevail is one that is likely to escape antibody neutralization or vaccine neutralization. Very little chance of that happening. But omicron has taught us that anything is possible.

So we need to be very careful. We need to keep monitoring, so that if we notice anything, we can turn around and say: Do we need to change the way we’re doing?

While I am in favor of easing and getting back into our lives [when cases are low]I also feel that’s when you need it than alert. When you see signs of a wildfire starting, then you can try and put it out.

Melody Schreiber (@m_scribe) is a journalist and editor of What We Didn’t Expect: A Personal Story of Premature Birth.

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