26.02.2024

How a bet over a bottle of wine helped lead to discovery of UK and South Africa variants

Realising that this appeared to be a new variant of the coronavirus, Prof de Oliveira reached out to labs in the Network for Genomic Surveillance in South Africa, asking them to send in samples from across the country.

The new coronavirus variants in the UK and South Africa came to light following a bet over a bottle of wine, a researcher which a pivotal role in both discoveries has revealed.

Tulio de Oliveira, a professor at Durban’s University of KwaZulu-Natal and leader of a genetics lab, told CNN he was shocked to have discovered the South African variant after noticing an unusually high number of mutations in samples of Covid-19.

In mid-November, the researcher said he started to receive nervous calls from doctors in the Eastern Cape province who expressed concerns over a sudden surge in Covid-19 cases.

With no clear reason for the spike, Prof de Oliveira asked the physicans to send him samples of the virus so he could sequence them.

Within a week, he had sequenced 16 samples and was surprised to find that all had an unusually high number of mutations that appeared similar.

“I said to myself, ‘there’s something very strange here,’ ” he said.

Susan Engelbrecht, the senior scientist at a lab in Stellenbosch, a town famed for its wineries, said she would be shocked if the new variant had reached her area, hundreds of kilometres away.

“I made a bet with her, that if we found the variant in more than 50 per cent of the samples from Stellenbosch, she would give me a bottle of wine,” Prof de Oliveira said. “She said not only would she give me bottle of wine, she would eat her hat, too.”

As it turned out, the variant had made its way to Stellenbosch, prompting fears that it was already widespread.

Prof De Oliveira is apparently still considering which Stellenbosch wine he will choose after winning the bet, perhaps because he was too busy trying to alert the rest of the world to the new variant.

On 4 December, he sent an urgent email to the World Health Organisation official heading the agency’s SARS-CoV-2 Virus Evolution Working Group.

“I would like to request an urgent addition to the agenda today – to raise an alert of some preliminary findings from South Africa,” he said.

The request was granted and Prof de Oliveria was able to warn scientists on the call from around the world about the new variant, telling them to look out for a mutation in a position of the spike protein known as N501Y.

Andrew Rambaut, a professor at the University of Edinburgh, heard the warning and quickly set out to search the UK’s genomic database for the possible mutation.

He and colleagues found the variant containing the mutation, just as it was spreading through parts of South East England, and published the findings on 20 December.

Prof Rambaut noted Prof de Oliveira’s role in the finding in a tweet, writing: “The hint to look for N501Y came from @Tuliodna who was tracking this mutation in South Africa.”

Maria Van Kerkhove, the technical lead for the WHO’s coronavirus response, told CNN Prof de Oliveira’s discovery “definitely triggered British scientists to look at the different type of variants.”

“I’m just so grateful that we have this international collaboration,” she said.

Anyone who has been in Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Eswatini, Zambia, Malawi, Lesotho, Mozambique or Angola, or the islands, in the past 10 days have until 4am on Saturday 9 January to reach England if play on entering the country before the ban comes into effect.

The ban comes after health secretary Matt Hancock warned earlier this week that he was “incredibly worried” about the variant.

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