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The inside story of discovering the Omicron variant

- The Conversation Weekly podcast

The Conversation Weekly podcast: What South African scientists' experience offers the world about future variants.

What is it like to discover a new coronavirus variant? In this episode of The Conversation Weekly podcast, we hear the inside story from one of the South African scientists who first alerted the world to the omicron variant. And a South African vaccine expert explains what lessons the country’s experience can offer the rest of the world about future variants. We’re joined by Ozayr Patel, digital editor for The Conversation based in Johannesburg for this story.

Plus, new research finds a person’s emotional reaction 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 at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases first saw the sequencing data for the omicron variant. “We hadn’t seen those many mutations before,” says Bhiman, a principal 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 spotted.

Over the following week, scientists across South Africa’s network for genomics surveillance swung into action to sequence more samples, before Bhiman and her colleagues alerted the South African government to their discovery. “Things exploded from that week on,” says Bhiman.

The World Health Organization quickly classified the discovery as a variant of concern and called it omicron. As countries around the world began closing their borders to travellers from southern Africa, Bhiman and some of her colleagues received death threats. “That was really scary,” she remembers. Scientists were targeted because of the travel bans. “They felt that scientists shouldn’t be raising the alarm – that this is not benefiting us in any way,” she says. Bhiman believes that the travel bans were irrational, because of the speed at which the variant moved around the world.

Shabir Madhi, Professor of vaccinology at the University of Witwatersrand, is a vaccine expert who’s worked on a couple of South Africa’s COVID-19 vaccine trials. He recalls that when he first saw the sequencing data on omicron, he was “fairly optimistic” that the immunity built up by vaccines and past waves of infections would protect against severe disease. And he was right. “We’ve seen a dramatic decoupling of infections, hospitalisations and death,” says Madhi.

But Madhi criticises the scepticism scientists in the northern hemisphere had about the early omicron data coming out of South Africa. “It’s a manifestation of cultural imperialism, where we will not believe anyone else unless we show the same first,” he says. He believes South Africa’s experience can offer lessons to scientists in other countries who may discover another coronavirus variant, particularly when it comes to travel bans. “I think the global community needs to make a stance that when countries start reporting data, they’re not going to be penalised for it,” he says. Madhi also thinks countries need to be careful about using “computer modelling about the potential effects of the mutations and extrapolating that this is what will happen from a clinical perspective”.

In our second story, we explore whether a person’s emotional response to music and harmony is innate or shaped by culture. George Athanasopoulos, COFUND/Marie Curie junior research fellow at Durham University in the UK, travelled to a remote region of northwestern Pakistan to spend time with the Kalash and Kho people who live there. His research is revealing that music considered “happy” to western listeners, for example in a major key, isn’t necessarily perceived that way by others. “After hours and hours of experimenting with the two tribes in northwest Pakistan,” he explains. “We found that actually for them, it’s the minor chord which conveys happiness.” (Listen from 34m15s.)

And Laura Hood, politics editor for The Conversation based in London, recommends some expert analysis on the political pressures facing the British prime minister, Boris Johnson, over parties held during the lockdowns. (Listen from 47m10s)