The Virus Hunters
Meeting the enemy face-to-face: The intrepid scientist who grew Omicron for testing
When South African scientists needed to grow the new Covid varient from samples in a laboratory they turned to a veteran of the pandemic to do the job.
His name is Sandile Cele.
When South Africa’s virus gurus needed someone to grow the dreaded and unknown Omicron variant of the coronavirus Cele did so in record time.
This variant of the virus was first identified by South African scientists as the reason for a sudden and very sharp increase in coronavirus cases in the country.
Earlier in December, Professor Glenda Gray — president of the South African Medical Research Council, paid tribute to Cele as the man who grew Omicron in record time so that scientists could figure out what was going on with the virus.
With nerves of steel and a certain determination to let science win, Cele is an experienced contributor to the South African war against Omicron, having been an original team member that was set up when the virus first became known.
“I would first like to thank the National Institute for Communicable Disease and the KwaZulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform for providing swab samples. This would not have been possible without the Omicron swab samples,” said Cele.
“Viruses are isolated or ‘outgrown’ by infecting cells in the laboratory, using swab samples from infected individuals. The infected cells then produce more virus that can be used in a lab to run experiments, like testing vaccine efficacy. The isolated virus stays in the lab where it is used for experiments. We only work on the virus in a biosafety level 3 laboratory, and with specialised PPE including a ventilator.
“I think doing it fast comes with the experience that we have as a laboratory team. We started culturing SARS-COV-2 around June 2020. We are at this point confident with our SARS-CoV-2 work after having optimised our systems over the past year and a half.
“I studied at the University of KwaZulu-Natal where I received a Bachelor’s degree in Biomedical Sciences (2007 to 2009), an honours degree in Medical Microbiology (2010) and a Masters degree in Biochemistry,” Cele added.
“From March to November 2014 I worked at the Technology Innovation Agency as a research scientist intern. This was part of a National Research Foundation internship programme. I believe the experience I gained from this internship helped me get hired at Africa Health Research Institute (Ahri) in November 2014 as a laboratory technologist. My work scope at Ahri then involved understanding HIV evolution of drug resistance. My current PhD, and lab work at Ahri, focuses on understanding emerging SARS-CoV-2 variants of concern and their escape from antibodies.”
Cele said when they heard that the coronavirus was making its way to South Africa they had set up a team that could start working, should the virus spread in the country.
“While I was worried about how the disease would affect our communities, I also understood that we would have the opportunity to study the virus. As scientists, it’s our duty to study and understand pathogens and how they cause disease,” Cele continued.
“We were very excited when we confirmed that we had managed to [out]grow Omicron. We now knew that we had live virus stock in order to test vaccine efficacy, as well as other experiments still in progress.
“This is the fourth variant and outbreak that we have dealt with. It is very important to always bear in mind the importance of the findings and the impact on our people. I always try to keep level-headed while at the same time work as fast and efficiently as possible to get answers.
“I believe I have mastered keeping calm when under pressure. My 5km run in the morning is what helps keep my stress levels down and sets me up for a long day (and sometimes night!) in the lab,” he said.
“At first we knew nothing about Omicron except the numerous mutations that it had acquired. There were so many questions that needed to be answered and that is what scientists do; try to answer scientific questions. I think the challenge was having to do it as quickly as possible as the world was expecting answers; but this was nothing new to me. I just kept my cool and did what I had to do.
“I always have pictures or graphs in my phone that show how vaccinated people are less likely to suffer severe disease and death. As a scientist I always like to present some sort of evidence to back up what I say.
When asked if the many conspiracy theories and anti-vaccination content on social media bothered him, Cele said that he was very selective about what he read and who he engaged with.
“I do believe [Covid-19] is going to be with us for some time, but slowing down transmission by non-pharmaceutical measures can help, and vaccination will continue to save lives,” he said.
Dr Alex Sigal who led the first South African study to determine the impact that the Omicron would have on vaccine-induced immunity also paid tribute to Cele in a public briefing on the results of the study.
The study led by the African Health Research Institute found that Omicron was able to escape some of the immunity induced by the Pfizer vaccine, but not all of the body’s immune responses. DM/MC
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