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 Omicron 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”.
Since 1993, the German Africa Foundation (DAS) has been honouring outstanding personalities from the African continent who have made a special contribution to democracy, peace, human rights, sustainable development, research, art and culture or social issues in Africa with the German Africa Award.
The prize is presented by high-ranking German politicians, including Foreign Minister Heiko Maas (2020), Chancellor Dr Angela Merkel (2019) and President Dr Frank-Walter Steinmeier (2017).
The DAS is a non-partisan foundation that works for the successful implementation of the German 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.
At the end of November 2021, Dr Moyo and his team from the Botswana Harvard AIDS Institute Partnership came across anomalies in routine genome sequencing PCR tests and shared them in the regional research database. Almost simultaneously, 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 leadership of Prof. de Oliveira, who had already discovered the first mutation of the coronavirus, the so-called beta variant, in late 2020. Shortly afterwards, the NGS-SA was able to inform the Ministry of Health, the WHO and the public about the newly discovered variant, called Omicron.