As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, many loved ones and colleagues died. Despite COVID-19’s devastation, South African scientists have worked tirelessly to produce some of the science that has fueled the global COVID-19 response. However, researchers faced difficulties, such as the international travel ban imposed on South Africa for the duration of the pandemic1, which had a significant impact on the local economy.
Death threats were issued to some South African researchers, necessitating the presence of armed guards in front of the laboratories at times. Despite all odds, the community persevered and are now acknowledged as a global leader in SARS-CoV-2 genomics surveillance; the second and third positions.
African scientists receive little acclaim and recognition on a global scale; typically, African researchers must produce at least twice as much to earn less than half the respect of researchers from high-income countries (HICs). Despite the fact that African scientists conducted much of the research, European scientists were credited with discovering the Ebola virus in 1976. 4 Discrimination against researchers from low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) is common in science.
It is time for the world to enter a new era in which African and other LMIC researchers are celebrated rather than punished for their scientific discoveries. African and other LMIC scientists can make significant contributions to global health, particularly in areas such as epidemic response and infectious diseases. It is time to invest more in science in LMICs if the world is to be better prepared for future epidemics and pandemics. HICs, which have long discriminated against African scientists’ work, are only now realising how important they were during the pandemic.
I delivered a speech at the Nobel Symposium of Medicine in Sweden on May 23, 2022, where 26 global scientists reflected on scientific advances made during the COVID-19 pandemic.
This group also included six South Africans, including Professors Glenda Gray and Penny Moore, bringing the total number of South Africans to more than 11%.
African scientists identified some of the most important SARS-CoV-2 variants (beta [B.1.351] and omicron [(B.1.1.529]) and conducted a successful trial of a COVID-19 vaccine with nearly 500 000 healthcare workers. A trial that demonstrated vaccine efficacy and protected South Africa’s health workforce prior to a large wave of infections. South Africa’s scientific community can now produce results on SARS-CoV-2 variant neutralisation in days, guiding booster vaccination programmes around the world. Due to travel bans and vaccine hoarding in HICs11, which both limited access to critical scientific reagents and vaccines, South Africa’s scientific community became extremely resourceful and efficient during the pandemic.
Later this year, South Africa will host the Nobel Symposia in Africa Symposia Series, making it one of the first countries outside of Sweden to do so.
The Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study in Stellenbosch, which is close to our Stellenbosch University data science offices, will host these symposiums. I consider myself fortunate to have been invited to speak at the first of the Nobel Symposia in Africa Symposia Series, the Physics Nobel Symposium on Predictability in Science in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, which will take place in October 2022. In 2023 and 2024, South Africa will also host the Nobel Symposia on Physiology or Medicine, Chemistry, and Economics. We hope that the rest of the world will come to South Africa and recognise the true worth of the continent’s research.
I hope that the Nobel Symposia and other high-level meetings bring more attention to African sciences and that more scientists from Africa and other LMICs are recognised and awarded Nobel Prizes and other honours. Africa and other LMICs, such as India and China, account for more than 84 percent of the global population, but they receive only 11 percent of Nobel Prizes. age thirteen, fourteen, and fifteen Most importantly, we must encourage top African and other LMIC scientists to stay or return home.
Two of my previous PhD students, Dr. Justen Manasa and Dr. Shikulile Moyo, returned to their home countries of Zimbabwe and Botswana to lead molecular laboratories at the African Institute of Biomedical Science and Technology (AiBST) and Botswana Harvard Partnership (BHP) that were critical in identifying and characterising omicron.
African science should take centre stage and be recognised and supported on a global scale. African researchers can help the rest of the world prepare for the next pandemic. However, the manner in which science is conducted and recognised must change. African and other LMIC scientists need to be able to lead global consortiums, host large grants and events, and influence the global scientific agenda. The rest of the world will quickly understand that our unwavering energy and expertise are driven by a desire to save lives—lives close to us, lives of people whose names, families, and communities we know and love.