Federal Chancellor Olaf Scholz presented the German Africa Award to bioinformatician Prof. Tulio de Oliveira of Stellenbosch University, South Africa, and virologist Dr. Sikhulile Moyo of the Botswana Harvard AIDS Institute Partnership at the Allianz Forum in Berlin on Friday evening, 25 November 2022. The award not only recognises the personal achievements of Prof. de Oliveira and Dr. Moyo, who have been instrumental in the global pandemic response by discovering and immediately reporting the Omikron variant to WHO, but also shines a spotlight on the world-class research being conducted in Botswana and South Africa, Chancellor Scholz said. “Africa is not lagging behind!”
But instead of recognising the scientific achievement of the researchers in November 2021, the EU, where the Omicron variant had already spread undetected, reacted by closing itself off – a move that not only strained European-African relations and had a fatal economic impact on the region, but also led to hostility and death threats. In his laudatory speech, Claus Stäcker, President of the German Africa Award jury, underlined the courage and integrity of the two award winners as well as their decision to share their data and findings directly – a matter of course for the two researchers – and thus contribute to global pandemic control.
Prof de Oliveira and Dr Moyo are among the absolute top in their fields of research, not only on the African continent. Nevertheless, this potential is not perceived in Europe and the work of African researchers is not recognised. There must be a clear change in perception here, the award winners demand. The Federal Chancellor also emphasised this and described the two researchers as an “inspiration and incentive to broaden our view, to leave behind old ways of thinking and to establish new partnerships”.
The welcoming speeches by Christopher Townsend, Member of the Board of Allianz SE, and Dr Uschi Eid, President of the German Africa Foundation, were followed by the portrait film produced by Deutsche Welle about the work of the award winners in their institutions in Botswana and South Africa respectively. Jury President Claus Stäcker gave the laudatory speech before Federal Chancellor Olaf Scholz presented the award statues. All speeches focused on the worldclass research in infectious diseases that is being done in Southern Africa but is not sufficiently recognised by the rest of the world. Uschi Eid not only paid her respect to the groundbreaking research of the award winners, but also to the research ethics and altruism with which they make their results publicly available is simply exemplary. In the subsequent discussion with the moderator and actress Thelma Buabeng, Dr Moyo and Prof de Oliveira described the challenges in their work. The successful evening was musically accompanied by the South African duo Adelle Nqeto on guitar and Tsepo Pooe on cello.
The German Africa Foundation (DAS) honours the scientists for their personal achievements in the global fight against the coronavirus pandemic and as representatives of a highly educated, transnational research community that is at the forefront of medical research not only in Africa but also internationally. The world’s first report of a virus variant to the WHO came from South Africa, and it was researchers from Botswana and South Africa who first sounded the alarm about the emergence of the so-called omicron variant: at the end of November last year, Dr Moyo and his team from the Botswana-Harvard AIDS Institute Partnership discovered anomalies in routine genome sequencing PCR tests. Alarmed by the findings, they shared them in the regional research database. At about the same time, a private laboratory in the South African capital of Pretoria also submitted abnormal data to the South African Network for Genome Surveillance (NGS-SA), which conducted further investigations under the direction of Prof de Oliveira, who had already discovered the first mutation of the Corona virus, the so-called beta variant, at the end of 2020. With the help of the test results in South Africa, the comparison with the transmitted data from Botswana and the close coordination with the colleagues there, the NGS-SA was able to inform the Ministry of Health, the WHO and the public about the newly discovered variant, called omicron, shortly afterwards.
But instead of recognising the researchers’ scientific achievement, the EU, where the omicron variant had already spread undetected, reacted with rigorous travel restrictions to southern Africa – a move that not only strained European-African relations and had fatal economic repercussions for the region, but also entailed harsh personal consequences for the researchers. Prof de Oliveira and Dr Moyo were held personally responsible for the negative consequences of the travel restrictions and even received death threats, so that the two had to be placed under personal protection at the time. Nevertheless, they continue their excellent work undeterred.
Prof Tulio de Oliveira and Dr Sikhulile Moyo are thus a shining example of expertise, integrity and courage and also prove what many in Germany and Europe do not believe to be possible due to the prevailing distorted image of Africa: that top medical research is also at home in Africa and that the continent has successful crisis management in the global pandemic from which Europe can and should learn.
Since 1993, the German Africa Foundation (DAS) has been honouring outstanding personalities from the African continent with the German Africa Award© who have made a special contribution to democracy, peace, human rights, sustainable development, research, art and culture or social issues in Africa. The prize is presented by high-ranking German politicians, including Federal Foreign Minister Heiko Maas (2020), Federal Chancellor Dr Angela Merkel (2019) and Federal President Dr Frank-Walter Steinmeier (2017). The DAS is a non-partisan foundation that works for the successful implementation of the German Federal Government’s Africa policy guidelines. One of its core tasks is also to convey a differentiated image of Africa in the political arena and to the German public.
Background information on the persons:
Dr Sikhulile Moyo is Laboratory Director at the Botswana-Harvard AIDS Institute Partnership (BHP) and is associated researcher with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The BHP is the leading national institution for HIV/AIDS research, training and capacity building in Botswana. Specialising in the human immunodeficiency virus HIV, Moyo, who grew up in Zimbabwe, has made a number of significant contributions to studies on the prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV during his career. In addition, he has been responsible for monitoring HIV incidence and has conducted research on HIV mutations associated with drug resistance. It is also thanks to this work that his laboratory was able to perform real-time genome sequencing in the wake of the Corona pandemic.
Prof Tulio de Oliveira is Director at the Centre for Epidemiology (CERI) at Stellenbosch University, Director and Co-Founder of the KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform (KRISP) at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and Director of the South African Network for Genome Surveillance (NGS-SA). Born and raised in Brazil, de Oliveira attended the Nelson Mandela School of Medicine at the University of KwaZulu-Natal after completing his bachelor’s degree, where he obtained his master’s and doctorate. A bioinformatician, he is one of South Africa’s leading researchers and embodies the face of South African excellence in his field in various capacities, including professor of bioinformatics at the School for Data Science and Computational Thinking at Stellenbosch University and lecturer at the College of Health Science at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.
Photos of the laureates of the German Africa Award 2022 are available for download hereafter.
Photos of Prof Tulio de Oliveira : ©sun
Photos of Dr Sikhulile Moyo: ©bhp
Contact information :
Svenja Schindelwig, Scientific Advisor
0049 152 2741 87 40