Cape Town - Professor Tulio de Oliveira became a household name and face during the global pandemic when he was the first to detect the Beta variant and Omnicron variant, placing South Africa on the map.
De Oliviera, a professor of bioinformatics, said he was just 6 when his mother noticed he was gifted.
He had humble beginnings, starting off with a computer which only had 16 KB of RAM as memory capacity.
Today, he works at state-of-the-art laboratories with automated DNA extraction robotic equipment.
These facilities are based in the billion-rand, world-class Biomedical Research Institute of Stellenbosch University’s Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences on the Tygerberg campus.
Today De Oliviera has an array of accolades and awards for his brilliance in variant detection. He was named as the 2022 recipient of the South African Medical Research Council’s Gold Medal, and received visits from World Health Organization director-general Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus, South Africa’s president Cyril Ramaphosa, and South African-born medical business leader and philanthropist Dr Patrick SoonShiong.
The same year, his team’s work on identifying and tracking Covid-19 variants was listed among the year’s top 10 technological breakthroughs by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s MIT Technological Review.
He was also awarded the Ministerial Special Covid-19 Award at the 7th National Batho Pele Excellence Awards of the South African Department of Public Service and Administration and received this year’s German Africa Award in November 2022.
De Oliveria is at present in the UK and is part of the Centre for Epidemic Response and Innovation (Ceri).
On January 25, Ceri and the Wellcome Sanger Institute’s Genomic Surveillance Unit (GSU) announced a new partnership to co-ordinate the genomic surveillance of infectious diseases globally.
This close relationship will allow teams in the UK and South Africa to share resources, co-ordinate strategies, and powerfully support partners in disease surveillance globally.
This will allow scientists to monitor pathogens in more places, including viruses carried by mosquitoes, waterborne diseases, respiratory viruses and other diseases with pandemic potential.
De Oliveira, who is director of Ceri and deputy director of the GSU at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, said: “We are excited to launch this new partnership with the GSU. Between our two teams, we can share complementary facilities and work together on many diseases.
“We have amazing people and technology, we have shown strong results for multiple pathogens, and we have the attention of funders and governments. We are in a good position now to respond effectively to epidemics in our own regions, and support genomic surveillance across the world.”
Professor Sibusiso Moyo, deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research, Innovation and Postgraduate Studies, said: “The agreement between Stellenbosch University and the Wellcome Sanger Institute will provide a great opportunity for the two institutions to make greater impact in genomic surveillance in Africa and globally as equal partners.”
But where did it all begin for him? His mother Maria, who was a civil engineer, placed him in a programme for gifted children in Brazil at the age of six.
Maria made sure he had time for tennis, skateboarding and basketball in between learning about computing, programming and artificial intelligence.
De Oliveria, who does not like conformity, often heard he was “too rebellious” during his school life.
Today, he still uses words such as ‘fun’ and ‘laughter’ in describing his day job, through which he combines his interest in biological and health sciences with his IT prowess.
He has called South Africa home since the age of 21, when he and his two sisters decided to start studying in Durban after Maria returned to Mozambique for work reasons.
His interest in analysing disease outbreaks started in 1997 in a virology research lab at UKZN.
One of his first projects was to co-author software to classify HIV variants.
After receiving his PhD from UKZN, he spent valuable research time in Belgium at Leuven Catholic University, and in the UK at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge (as a Royal Society Newton Fellow) and at Oxford University (as a Marie Curie Fellow).
In 1998, he helped prove the innocence of six foreign medical workers who were due for execution in Libya who were accused of infecting more than 480 children with HIV.
An analysis of DNA samples proved the children were already infected prior to the medical staff’s arrival in Libya. The results, with De Oliveira as first author, were published in Nature. More than 100 Nobel Prize winners endorsed it.
De Oliveira is an affiliate professor at the University of Washington’s Department of Global Health, and still serves as director of KRISP, KwaZulu-Natal Research Innovation Sequencing Platform and as a senior research associate of the Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa (CAPRISA) at UKZN.
To keep fit and balance his lifestyle and when given a chance, he cycles to work.
“Each time we double our pressure, we also double our basic mental health processes. Otherwise, one cannot handle that kind of pressure.”
In 2021, De Oliveira was named one of science journal Nature’s 10 most influential scientists for standing up against vaccine hoarding.
“South Africa and Africa at large do not have to be mere followers in the science world. The long-term objective is to reverse the brain drain, to attract leading experts and to grow local talent. And to be a big exporter of the best technologies related to vaccines, therapies and diagnostics to help the world.”
His team at CERI continues to sequence the genomes of known pathogens and unknown variants even in 2024.
“Most of our ‘big questions’ relate to epidemics: Covid-19, HIV and TB. Then there are lesser-known diseases that commonly occur in Africa, such as yellow fever, Zika, Lassa, dengue, Ebola and the chikungunya virus,” he said.