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

Global community needs to take a stand that when countries start reporting data, they won’t be penalized for it, say South African scientists who discovered omicron

How does it feel to discover a new variant of coronavirus? In this episode of The Conversation Weekly podcast, we hear the inside story of 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 are joined by Ozayr Patel, digital editor for The conversation based in Johannesburg for this story.

Plus, new research reveals that a person’s emotional response to music has a lot to do with their cultural background – we’re talking to the musicologist behind it.

It was 9 a.m. on a Friday evening in late November 2021 when Jinal Bhiman and his colleagues at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases first saw sequencing data from the omicron variant.

“We hadn’t seen these many mutations before,” says Bhiman, a senior medical scientist at the institute. The sequencing data came from a small group of eight samples from Gauteng province in South Africa where an unusual cluster of cases had been spotted.

Over the next week, scientists from the South African Genomics Surveillance Network swung into action to sequence more samples, before Bhiman and his colleagues alerted the South African government to their discovery. “Things exploded from this week,” says Bhiman.

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

“It was really scary,” she recalls. Scientists have been targeted because of 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, due to the speed at which the variant moved around the world.

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

But Madhi criticizes the skepticism of scientists in the northern hemisphere regarding the first omicron data from South Africa. “It’s a manifestation of cultural imperialism, where we won’t believe anyone else unless we show the same thing first,” he says.

He thinks South Africa’s experience can offer lessons for scientists in other countries who may discover another variant of the coronavirus, particularly regarding travel bans.

“I think the global community needs to take a position that when countries start reporting data, they won’t be penalized for it,” he says. Madhi also thinks countries need to be careful when using “computer modeling of the potential effects of 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, a junior COFUND/Marie Curie researcher at Durham University in the UK, traveled to a remote area in northwest Pakistan to spend time with the Kalash and Kho people who live there.

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

And Laura Hood, political editor for The conversation based in London, recommends an expert analysis of the political pressures facing British Prime Minister Boris Johnson over parties held during lockdowns. (Listen 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 from Neeta Sarl. You can find us on Twitter @TC_Audio, on Instagram at theconversationdotcom or via email. You can also sign up for The Conversation’s free daily email here.

A transcript of this episode is available here.

News clips for this episode come from CNBC Television, DW News, WION, NBC News, SABC News and CBS News. Voice recordings in the history of musical harmony from databases by Latif S et al and Burkhardt F et al. Harmonized melodies in full-tone style, and in the style of a JS Bach chorale, by George Athanasopoulos. Overture to The Barber of Seville by Rossini, Davis High School Symphony Orchestra.

You can listen to The Conversation Weekly through one of the apps listed above, download it directly through our RSS feed, or find out how else to listen here.

Gemma Ware, writer and co-host of The Conversation weekly podcast, The conversation and Daniel Merino, associate science editor and co-host of The Conversation weekly podcast, The conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.