South African scientists on the inside story of the discovery of omicron – and what their experience offers the world about future variants


The global community needs to take a stance that countries won’t be penalized for starting to report data, say South African scientists who discovered Omicron

What is it like to discover a new variant of the coronavirus? In this episode of The Conversation Weekly podcast, we hear the inside story from one of the South African scientists who first brought the Omicron variant to the world’s attention.

And a South African vaccine expert explains what lessons the country’s experience can offer the rest of the world about future variants. Joining us is Ozayr Patel, Digital Editor for The conversation based in Johannesburg for this story.

Plus, new research has revealed that a person’s emotional response to music has a lot to do with their cultural background — we speak to the musicologist behind it.

It was nine o’clock on a Friday evening in late November 2021 when Jinal Bhiman and her colleagues from the National Institute of Communicable Diseases first saw the sequencing data for the Omicron variant.

“We had never seen so many mutations before,” says Bhiman, chief medical scientist at the institute. The sequencing data came from a small group of eight samples from South Africa’s Gauteng province, where an unusual cluster of cases had been discovered.

The following week, scientists from South Africa’s Genome Monitoring Network went into action to sequence more samples before Bhiman and her colleagues brought their discovery to the South African government’s attention. “Things exploded from that week,” says Bhiman.

The World Health Organization quickly classified the discovery as a variant of concern and dubbed it Omicron. As countries around the world began closing their borders to travelers from southern Africa, Bhiman and some of her colleagues received death threats.

“It was really scary,” she recalls. Scientists have been targeted over the travel bans. “They felt that scientists shouldn’t sound the alarm – that it doesn’t benefit us in any way,” she says. Bhiman believes the travel bans were irrational because of the speed at which the variant was moving around the world.

Shabir Madhi, Professor of Vaccinology at the University of Witwatersrand, is a vaccines expert who has worked on some of South Africa’s COVID-19 vaccine trials. He recalls that when he first saw Omicron’s sequencing data, he was “pretty optimistic” that the immunity built up by vaccines and previous waves of infection would protect against serious disease. And he was right. “We have seen a dramatic decoupling of infections, hospitalizations and deaths,” says Madhi.

But Madhi has criticized the skepticism scientists in the northern hemisphere had of the early Omicron data that came out of South Africa. “It’s a manifestation of cultural imperialism where we don’t believe anyone else unless we show the same,” he says.

He believes South Africa’s experience can offer lessons to scientists in other countries who may be discovering another variant of the coronavirus, particularly when it comes to travel bans.

“I think the global community needs to take an attitude that countries are not penalized for starting to report data,” he says. Madhi also believes that countries need to be cautious about “using computer models about the potential impact of the mutations and extrapolating that from a clinical perspective this will happen”.

In our second story, we examine whether a person’s emotional response to music and harmony is innate or culturally conditioned. George Athanasopoulos, COFUND/Marie Curie Junior Research Fellow at Durham University in the UK, traveled to a remote region of northwest Pakistan to spend time with the local Kalash and Kho people.

His research shows that music that Western listeners perceive as “happy,” for example in a major key, is not necessarily perceived that way by others. “After hours of experimentation with the two tribes in northwestern Pakistan,” he explains. “We found that for her it’s actually the minor chord that expresses happiness.” (Listen from 34m15s.)

And Laura Hood, politics editor for The conversation based in London, recommends some expert analysis on the political pressure British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is facing over parties held during the lockdown. (listening from 47m10s)

This episode of The Conversation Weekly was produced by Mend Mariwany and Gemma Ware, with sound design by Eloise Stevens. Our theme music is by Neeta Sarl. You can find us on Twitter @TC_Audio, on Instagram at theconversationdotcom, or by email. You can also sign up for The Conversation’s free daily email here.

A transcript of this episode is available here.

News segments in this episode are from CNBC Television, DW News, WION, NBC News, SABC News and CBS News. Vocal Recordings in Musical Harmony History from Latif S et al and Burkhardt F et al databases. Melodies harmonized in whole tone style and in the style of a JS Bach chorale by George Athanasopoulos. Overture to Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, Davis High School Symphony Orchestra.

You can listen to The Conversation Weekly through any of the apps above, download directly from our RSS feed, or search for other ways to listen here.

Gemma Ware, Editor and Co-Host, The Conversation Weekly Podcast, The conversation and Daniel Merino, Assistant Science Editor & Co-Host of The Conversation Weekly Podcast, The conversation

This article was republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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