Tale of Mzilikazi High student who detected Covid-19 Omicron variant

Source: Tale of Mzilikazi High student who detected Covid-19 Omicron variant | The Herald (Local News)

Dr Sikhulile Moyo

Nqobile Tshili-Chronicle Reporter

“AN African child is raised by the whole village,” says Dr Sikhulile Moyo as he pays tribute to the Donkwe-Donkwe community in Kezi for playing a significant part in his upbringing.

Dr Moyo is the laboratory director and research scientist at Botswana Harvard Aids Institute.

He is also a research associate at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and is the co-chief scientist of the Presidential Covid-19 Taskforce in Botswana.

He became internationally acclaimed after he detected the Omicron Covid-19 virus variant in November last year. 

Since his discovery of the Omicron variant, the Matabeleland South Province son has won international awards in recognition of his contribution towards saving humanity from the deadly pandemic.

He is a recipient of the Times Most Influential People in the World 2022, Festus Mogae Award for Excellence in HIV Research, Martin Luther King Jr Humanitarian Award, German Africa Award and New African Award top 100 most influential Africans 2022.

President Mnangagwa recently gifted Dr Moyo US$50 000 for his scientific works while the Government works on a proper honour for his works.

In an interview on Monday, Dr Moyo paid tribute to Zimbabwe’s education for laying a firm foundation for his success.

“I was raised here in Kezi and educated within the Zimbabwe education system through primary education. For secondary education, I attended Cyrene High School. It was an incubator for us, a boys’ school and then I went to Mzilikazi High School. We called it Emgandane and you wise up when you learn at Emgandane,” said Dr Moyo. He said he proceeded to the University of Zimbabwe (UZ) which became a springboard for his career. After graduating he became a science teacher before migrating to become a research analyst with International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in 1997.

“So, I was doing analysis background research and from there I got linked by a professor in Botswana who took me to Botswana where I worked for the University in Botswana. I studied my Masters and worked for them in the biology division and I was identified by the Harvard University, they have a project there, the Botswana Harvard Aids Institute. I have been there since 2003,” he said.

He has been the lead scientist at the institute, which seeks to eradicate AIDS. The Botswana Harvard Aids Institute has produced medical drugs which are being used globally to fight HIV and AIDS. 

“Through that, I have been able to collaborate with other Sadc countries and Zimbabwe through the Ministry of Health and Child Care. I collaborate with the Lab Services Programme. Once in a while, I work with them to develop and train and sometimes I host some of them in my facility for training,” he said.

Dr Moyo said it was not difficult for him and his team to identify the Covid-19 Omicron variant.

“I am a medical virologist. I study viruses and I am on the lookout for new viruses, known, unknown, and different properties checking a lot of things. That is why it was not an accident that we managed to describe new patterns of mutations within the Sars 2 Covid-19 (Omicron variant),” said Dr Moyo.

“We are used to microscopically looking because viruses are always trying to evade the immune system. They are always trying to find ways of surviving with the host so we are always looking for signatures of the viruses that show that it has changed.”

He said it was a humbling experience to know that his team’s discovery of the variant informed governments, researchers and scientists on how to respond to the mutation of the virus. 

The Omicron variant was more transmittable than the previous variants such as the Delta variant, posing more risk to the public.

“As you know the omicron that we discovered, those mutations you will discover that some of the viruses will work but at a reduced capacity. Right now, there is a new vaccine, the omicron adaptive vaccine, so we are proud and grateful that we were able to contribute to the world to develop such a tool,” he said.

Dr Moyo said the Zimbabwean education system and family roots have enabled him to have a global impact and set his sight on giving back to the community.

He said the awards that he has won have put him in a position to transform communities.

“I am hoping that with these awards and everything associated with them there will be some developments that will benefit my people. That is my heart’s desire because the people I meet who are appreciative of the work we have done always ask what they can do for you. So, I think beyond myself because the best way of expanding yourself is to develop others. The best way to be a great person is to make others great and that is what my heart desires,” he said.

Dr Moyo’s sister-in-law, Zanele said they feel honoured by the recognition bestowed on him.

“When I got married to his brother, he was already living with his brother. And while at university, he had this migraine headache problem. He would scream in the middle of the night and would request that we call Damasane (Reverend Paul Bayethe) and ask him to come and pray for him. So, when Sikhulile made this achievement it just came back to me that maybe it was the intelligence in him which was shaking him around. This is really a big achievement,” said Zanele.

Rev Damasane, who is the Deputy Chief Secretary in the Office of the President and Cabinet, said it was God’s grace to see Dr Moyo succeed. 

Historian Pathisa Nyathi, speaking during Dr Moyo’s celebration party in Donkwe Donkwe, said the virologist had put the continent and African race on a global map.

He said while Dr Moyo is Zimbabwean, the migration to Botswana can be traced to the movement of people within the pre-colonial era where some Africans settled in the country while they have relatives in the neighbouring country.

“We know that the Moyos migrated from Botswana. We call them Talahunda, they belong to Talahunda and most of them are resident here in Kezi and others are based in Brunapeg and others may use Maphenduka surname,” he said.

Nyathi said Dr Moyo’s success proves that the African race is as competent as any other race.

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