Meet The Scientists Hunting For The Next Variant Of Concern

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by Tyler Durden
Sunday, Dec 19, 2021 - 03:15 AM

America has some of the most advanced medical research capabilities in the world. So why is it that a small group of labs in South Africa seems to be a step ahead of everybody else when it comes to sniffing out new variants?

The group first gained notoriety for discovering the beta variant and alerting the world to its presence. But most people probably became familiar with Alex Sigal, Tulio de Oliveira and their work at a gene-sequencing laboratory in the South African port city of Durban when they announced the discovery of the omicron variant, the latest "variant of concern" while Americans were enjoying their Thanksgiving dinner.

What is it that makes their lab so successful? Well, it looks like Bloomberg has finally found the answer in a profile of the Africa Health Research Institute, as it's formally known.

South African scientists became experts at combating viruses almost by necessity, They have been hard at work fighting AIDS, Turburculosis and other viruses - work that has made them a magnet for the world's best epidemiologists.

Because of this, Sigal's lab has become a kind of training ground for scientists across the continent. It was the first to test omicron against blood plasma from people who’d received two doses of the Pfizer jab. They also developed a theory claiming that immunodepressed people might be breeding grounds for mutants since they're so vulnerable.

One reason for its success with finding new variants: South Africa has set up a network of seven genomic surveillance labs with one at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases and six at academic institutions.

Sigal works with Tulio de Oliveira, the Brazilian head of the gene-sequencing laboratory Krisp.

"There’s a lot of technical capacity in South Africa to do genomic sequencing of pathogens because we've built up that expertise over many years for HIV and TB," said Richard Lessells, a Scottish infectious diseases specialist at Krisp. "Very early on in the pandemic, we recognized that genomic sequencing and genomic surveillance was going to be very important."

Since the discovery of omicron, many of the scientists working in the lab have been dealing with sleepless nights.

"I’ve been working to get the Pfizer vaccine efficacy study ready," said Sigal, who becomes animated when he watches a time-lapse video of the omicron variant attacking cells. “I worked through the night."

Put another way: the more variants they "discover", the more prestige and funding they will be rewarded with.