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Leading South African COVID scientist accuses West of racism over skeptical response to country’s Omicron research

January 21, 2022, 1:15 PM UTC

A senior South African scientist has accused Western nations of racism, over the way they skeptically received early data from the country showing that the Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus is relatively mild.

Shabir Madhi—professor of vaccinology at the University of the Witwatersrand, chair of the National Advisory Group on Immunization, and a top World Health Organization adviser—told the BBC that the West had at the least refused “to believe the science because it came from Africa.”

“It seems like high-income countries are much more able to absorb bad news that comes from countries like South Africa,” he said. “When we’re providing good news, all of a sudden there’s a whole lot of skepticism. I would call that racism.”

Madhi was one of the prominent South African experts telling the world in early December that Omicron was fast-spreading but had what seemed to be a low hospitalization rate. The country’s scientists continued to emit such data throughout that month, before a formal South African study—and two others from the U.K.—confirmed Omicron’s mildness. Within a couple weeks, rich countries’ leaders started talking about treating Omicron like the flu, though the WHO continues to warn against being so blasé about the variant.

Some of the early skepticism referenced the potentially confounding effects of South Africa’s relatively young population; younger people are generally less likely to get serious ill with COVID. However, Madhi pointed out that South Africans are actually more susceptible to severe disease, because of the prevalence of HIV and high obesity rates there. (Indeed, South African scientists were noting from the start that Omicron was having a milder impact on older people as well as younger.)

“Scientifically rigorous”

Salim Karim, the South African vice-president of the International Science Council, also told the BBC that “everyone was expecting the worst [about Omicron] and when they weren’t seeing it, they were questioning whether our observations were sufficiently scientifically rigorous.”

As it happens, South Africa has excellent laboratory infrastructure, largely thanks to the decades it has spent fighting HIV and tuberculosis, among other viruses and diseases.

A few months after the pandemic struck, the government tapped into this infrastructure by establishing a new network of labs, scientists and academics to sequence samples and provide scientific data in the COVID-19 fightback. A Regional Centre of Excellence for Genomic Surveillance and Bioinformatics was set up last July, to support the rapid expansion of sequencing across the whole of southern Africa.

African COVID vaccine production is already leaning heavily on South Africa, due to the advanced state of its biotech sector, though more capacity is likely to come online in Senegal this year.

South Africa’s genomic-sequencing prowess has certainly proved useful. It identified the Beta variant in late 2020 and Omicron a year later, after scientists there and in neighboring Botswana discovered the new strain at the same time. (Botswanan President Mokgweetsi Masisi subsequently said his country’s first cases were foreign diplomats who had come from Europe.)

“Vaccine apartheid”

But the reaction to these discoveries also prompted rich countries to institute travel bans on the region, decimating tourism and hammering currencies. This reaction was widely characterized as racist—and ineffective.

“When South African scientists discovered Omicron, the new variant, they immediately took on the responsibility of informing the entire world that a new variant has been found,” President Cyril Ramaphosa said last month. “And what was the response? The northern countries decided to punish the excellence from Africa. They basically said, we will not allow you to travel. Lo and behold! Omicron is spreading all over the world.”

The South African leader also slammed rich countries over their hoarding of vaccines, claiming they were fueling “vaccine apartheid”—a reference to the racist system of “separate development” that heavily oppressed South African Black people in the days of white minority rule.

“They are just giving us the crumbs from their table. The greed they demonstrated was disappointing, particularly when they say they are our partners. Because our lives in Africa are just as important as lives in Europe, North America and all over,” Ramaphosa said.

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