GABORONE, Botswana – The Botswana scientist who may well have discovered the omicron variant of the coronavirus says he has been on a rollercoaster of emotions, with the pride of accomplishment followed by dismay over the travel bans immediately slapped on southern African countries.
“Is that how you reward science? By blacklisting countries?” Dr. Sikhulile Moyo, a virologist at the Botswana Harvard AIDS Institute Partnership, said in an interview Thursday night with The Associated Press.
“The virus does not know passports, it does not know borders,” he added.
“We should be collaborating and understanding.”
Moyo was doing genomic sequencing of COVID-19 samples at his lab in Botswana two weeks ago and noticed three cases that seemed dramatically different, with an unusual pattern showing multiple mutations.
He continued studying the results and by early last week, decided to publicly release the data on the internet.
Soon scientists in South Africa said they had made the same findings and an identical case in Hong Kong was also identified.
A new coronavirus variant had been discovered, and soon the World Health Organization (WHO) named it omicron.
It has now been identified in 38 countries and counting, including much of Western Europe and the United States.
And the U.S. and many other nations have imposed flight restrictions to try to contain the emerging threat.
Speaking from his lab in Gaborone, Botswana’s capital, Moyo bristled at being described as the man who first identified omicron.
In fact, he noted that the variant was found to be something entirely new only by comparing it to other viruses online in a public database shared by scientists.
“The only way you can really see that you see something new is when you compare with millions of sequences. That’s why you deposit it online,” he said.
The Zimbabwe-born Moyo – who is also a research associate at Harvard’s school of public health, a married father of three, and a gospel singer – expressed pride in the way he and his international colleagues were transparent about their findings and sounded the alarm to the rest of the world.
Omicron startled scientists because it had more than 50 mutations.
Little is known about the variant, and the world is watching nervously.
It’s not clear if it makes people more seriously ill or can evade the vaccine.
But early evidence suggests it might be more contagious and more efficient at re-infecting people who have had a bout with COVID-19.
In the coming weeks, labs around the world will be working to find out what to expect from omicron and just how dangerous it is.
South Africa is seeing a dramatic surge in infections that may be driven by omicron.
The country reported more than 16,000 new COVID-19 cases Friday, up from about 200 per day in mid-November.
The number of omicron cases confirmed by genetic sequencing in Botswana has grown to 19, while South Africa has recorded more than 200.
So far, most of the cases are in people who did not get vaccinated.
He credited earlier research and investment into fighting HIV and AIDS with building Botswana’s capacity for doing genetic sequencing.