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German Africa Prize 2022 awarded to African scientists

Martina Schwikowski | Adrian Kriesch
November 25, 2022

German Chancellor Scholz is set to award Sikhulile Moyo und Tulio de Oliveira the German Africa Prize this Friday. The two discovered the Omicron coronavirus variant, an achievement for which they also received threats.

Virologists Tulio de Oliveira (left) und Sikhulile Moyo
Virologists Tulio de Oliveira (left) und Sikhulile Moyo were awarded the German Africa Prize 2022 Image: sun / bhp

The German Africa Foundation (DAS) invited researchers Sikhulile Moyo and Tulio de Oliveira to Berlin this Friday, November 25, for a ceremony and reception honoring them with the German Africa Prize.

Sikhulile Moyo is one of Africa's most renowned AIDS researchers. When the Corona pandemic broke out, Moyo, who is laboratory director at the Botswana Harvard AIDS Institute, focused on the new virus. In November 2021, he discovered something that would turn more than just his own life upside down: a previously unknown virus strain.

Scientist Sikhulile Moyo in a laboratory
Sikhulile Moyo discovered the Omicron variant in November 2021 in his lab in Botswana Image: DW

"The number of mutations the virus had was just unbelievable," he told DW in retrospect. At the time, Moyo compared the results with existing analyses and posted the data online. His warning of a new, highly contagious variant shot around the world in no time — almost as fast as it developed into the globally dominant corona variant. The World Health Organization (WHO) called it Omicron.

Two prize winners 

Now, Zimbabwean Sikhulile Moyo has been awarded the German Africa Prize 2022, along with South African Tulio de Oliveira — once his tutor — for this crucial discovery in the fight against the pandemic. Brazilian-born de Oliveira moved to South Africa when he was 21. He says he always felt a close connection to Africa thanks to his Mozambican mother. Specialized in epidemics, today de Oliveira is one of South Africa's leading virologists.

The German Africa Foundation's award has been honoring African personalities since 1993. The prize goes to individuals who, in the view of the jury, are committed to peace, reconciliation and social progress. Previous winners have included Botswana's former President Ketumile Masire, Somali women's rights activist Waris Dirie and Kenyan IT pioneer Juliana Rotich.

Scientist Tulio de Oliveira
Tulio de Oliveira worked closely with his colleague Sikhulile Moyo Image: DW

This year's winners, Moyo and de Oliveira, became household names around the world overnight as a result of their discovery. Scientists at Stellenbosch University's Centre for Epidemic Control and Innovation in neighboring South Africa also detected the dangerous variant just hours after Moyo. Tulio de Oliveira heads the facility near Cape Town, where he mentored the Zimbabwean-born Moyo before the latter earned his doctorate in 2016.

High-level science

The scientists worked closely together. They made Time magazine's list of the 100 most influential people in 2022. "It's great to be recognized," Oliveira told DW. "But, honestly, we're not chasing awards. What really satisfies us is doing science at a high level and translating that into policies that save lives. And we care deeply about empowering other African scientists."

His colleague Moyo said that accepting the award on behalf of many African scientists was a great honor. He pointed out that the Omicron variant was only identified as something completely new by comparing it to other viruses in a public database. "The award represents many people who are behind us. Without collaboration, we would not be where we are in this short time," he said.

Scientist Sikhulile Moyowith students
Moyo with his students: The virologist praised the collaboration with young and engaged scientistsImage: DW

Egoism in industrialized countries

De Oliveira was also pleased with the achievement of African researchers. "The pandemic showed that Africa can be a scientific leader. Many were surprised by this, but we were not. We have invested a lot in people and equipment in the last 20 years," he told DW.

He was disappointed at just how much industrialized countries were preoccupied with themselves during the pandemic, failing to help others. "In the beginning they hoarded tests, protective equipment and later vaccines," de Oliveira said. "On top of that were the ineffective travel bans. That was very sad. The world had a chance to respond together to a global problem and it chose a nationalistic approach that helped no one." 

Hostility instead of glory

With the discovery of Omicron, the world once again switched into panic mode. Borders were closed, flights to southern Africa were canceled. The discoverers of the new variant were antagonized and even received death threats. "I got calls from people complaining that I had spoiled their vacation. Many said, 'You scientists have a big mouth, look what you've done.' It was very uncomfortable," Moyo said.

Sikhulile Moyo singing in a sound studio
Gospel music carried Moyo through the dark times of the pandemicImage: DW

Still, he was pleased to have discovered the new variant: "We are glad we alerted the world. It prevented a lot of infections."

The pandemic has impacted Moyo's life too, as the father of three admited. He says he found balance with the help of his faith and gospel music, even releasing two music albums. "The pandemic grounded us, reminded us what is important in life. Friends became unemployed or died. It was a dark time. We were surrounded by the virus and we all wondered, 'Is this the end?' My music helped me get through that time," Moyo says.

German Africa Prize awarded to Omicron variant researchers

This article was first published on October 25, 2022.

Edited by Cristina Krippahl