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Renowned bioinformatician joins forces with Stellenbosch University in fight against pandemics
Author: Corporate Communication & Marketing / Korporatiewe Kommunikasie & Bemarking
Published: 20/07/2021

​Prof Tulio de Oliveira, the world-renowned bioinformatician who identified a new variant of COVID-19 in South Africa in December 2020, is to set up a new institute at Stellenbosch University (SU) aimed at understanding and controlling epidemics and pandemics in Africa and the global south.

He will do so in his capacity as professor of Bioinformatics at SU's School for Data Science and Computational Thinking, a position he was appointed to on 1 July 2021. He will also work closely with SU's Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences as well as its Faculty of Science.

Prof De Oliveira is the director of the KwaZulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform (KRISP) at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN). He will remain in his position at KRISP, as SU and UKZN are discussing joining forces in the new institute. The state-of-the-art laboratory facilities and scientific expertise and capacity of both KRISP and SU will enable the new institute's multidisciplinary team to play a critical role in supporting the public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“A core strategic theme of Stellenbosch University is purposeful partnerships and inclusive networks. Prof De Oliveira's appointment bears witness to our institution's express aim of collaborating at a multi-institutional level," says Prof Wim de Villiers, SU Rector and Vice-Chancellor.

“Part of our vision of being Africa's leading research-intensive university is to advance knowledge in service of society. With Prof De Oliveira joining our ranks, SU is well poised to make an invaluable contribution to the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic and other epidemics in Africa and beyond, for the betterment of society at large. It is a privilege to welcome a scientist of Prof De Oliveira's calibre to the University."

Prof De Oliveira has been studying viral outbreaks such as HIV, hepatitis B and C, chikungunya, dengue, SARS-CoV-2, Zika and yellow fever for over 20 years. He has produced more than 200 publications, including over 30 in top scientific journals such as Nature, Science, NEJM and Lancet. His identification of a new variant of SARS-CoV-2 in South Africa – 501Y.V2, also known as the Beta variant – led to the discovery of new variants across the world and has improved scientists' understanding of the effectiveness of vaccines.

According to Prof De Oliveira, the new institute – provisionally named the Centre for Epidemic Research, Response and Innovation (CERI) – has already secured two significant grants to help facilitate “a high level of science". A grant from the South African Medical Research Council will fund the Network for Genomic Surveillance in the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), focusing on COVID genomic surveillance across all five nations. De Oliveira will be the principal investigator of this network.

In addition, a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation will help fund genomics labs to produce over 10 000 COVID genomes for over ten African countries. CERI will also be receiving 100 fellows from African countries, who will be trained in the production and analysis of COVID genomic data.

Discussions are under way with a philanthropist to set up CERI campuses at both UKZN and SU, and potentially other universities in Africa as well, De Oliveira says.

Genomics for Africa

“What we are discussing is the creation of a multi-institutional institute, which would not only have a national footprint, but would also work as a specialised genomics laboratory in Africa and support the work of the Africa Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) and the World Health Organisation in strengthening genomic surveillance," Prof De Oliviera explains.

“In addition, we will be expanding our research programme to include many of the neglected pathogens that affect the African continent."

Prof De Oliveira, who also helped guide the establishment of the Centre for Bioinformatics and Computational Biology at SU, looks forward to working with SU again.

“I really believe Stellenbosch is potentially the best-performing university in South Africa. I am very impressed with not only their facilities, but also their levels of motivation and science. I have no doubt that developing this institute with Stellenbosch University will be a great step for my scientific career," he says.

He adds that many advertisements have gone out for postdoctoral and student positions to expand both the School for Data Science and Computational Thinking and the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at SU.

SU's School for Data Science and Computational Thinking, which was launched in 2019, is a world-class institution for data science and computational thinking in and for Africa. It is involved in research collaboration between and across disciplines in all of SU's ten faculties. It also spans the entire academic project, from undergraduate and postgraduate training to research and specialist consultation. In addition, it connects those in government, business and the non-profit sector as they seek to use big data to address the challenges South Africa faces.

“We are excited that one of our country's leading scientists has joined the Stellenbosch family," says SU Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Learning and Teaching, Prof Deresh Ramjugernath.

“I had the opportunity to work closely with Prof De Oliveira in establishing KRISP, so I know first-hand his passion, energy and drive in making things happen. We look forward to have him working with our colleagues in a multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary approach in order to fulfil our vision of having a global impact on current and future epidemics and pandemics."

Prof Kanshu Rajaratnam, director of the School for Data Science and Computational Thinking, adds: “Prof De Oliveira's appointment is another example of how Stellenbosch University is building data science and computational thinking in and for Africa. His vision for CERI, together with his passion for developing science and African scientists, will bring great benefit for the continent – not only in genomic surveillance, but also in building capacity in bioinformatics and data science. This has benefits for both academia and industry, even in areas unrelated to medicine and health sciences."

Prof Tulio de Oliveira's academic and professional background

Prof Tulio de Oliveira obtained his BSc at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS), Brazil, and his MSc/PhD at the Nelson R Mandela School of Medicine, UKZN. He was a Marie Curie research fellow at the University of Oxford from 2004 to 2006, and a Newton advanced fellow at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and the University of Edinburgh from 2015 to 2019. In 2015, he became a professor at UKZN and, in 2018, an associate professor of Global Health at the University of Washington, Seattle, United States.