The Inside Story of Discovering Omicron

Epicentre News • 01 March 2022

This story is a reproduction taken from an episode of The Conversation Weekly podcast, if you would like to listen to the original podcast or read the transcription, please click here.

It was 9 in the evening in late November 2021 when our partner on HUTS, Jinal Bhiman and her colleagues at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases first saw the sequencing data for a strange new variant that would become known as ‘omicron’.

Bhiman remembers being stunned, they simply had never seen that many mutations. The sequencing data had come from just eight samples taken from the Gauteng province, where an unusual cluster of cases had been spotted.

Over the next week, scientists across South Africa rapidly sequenced new samples. With more data in hand, Bhiman and her colleagues alerted the South African government to their discovery. The World Health Organization then quickly classified this discovery as a variant of concern and called it omicron.

What came next shook many South African’s lives. Countries around the world closed their borders to travellers from Southern Africa. Bhiman and some of her colleagues received death threats. 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.