Stellenbosch University's epidemic response centre receives MIT recognition

4th March 2022 By: Schalk Burger - Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor

The Stellenbosch University (SU) Centre for Epidemic Response and Innovation (CERI) received international acclaim when its work on identifying and tracking Covid-19 variants was listed as one of the ten technological breakthroughs of 2022 by the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Technological Review, the university says.

CERI, which will be officially launched later this year, has been at the forefront of pathogen genomics surveillance to enhance biomedical discovery and to respond effectively to epidemics.

The type of surveillance being done at CERI helped South African scientists to quickly spot and warn the rest of the world about the Beta and Omicron Covid-19 variants.

SU School for Data Science and Computational Thinking professor of bioinformatics and CERI head Professor Tulio de Oliveira says the centre felt very honoured to be listed as the main group leading genomics surveillance of Covid-19 in the world, which was selected as one of the ten breakthrough technologies in 2022 by MIT.

“As part of this process, we also received a visit of a photographic crew from MIT. They were very impressed with our new state-of-the-art data and genomics facilities in South Africa and featured the new Biomedical Research Institute (BMRI) of Stellenbosch University in its feature piece on genomics surveillance,” he says.

Envisioned to be the largest genomics facility in Africa, CERI also provides capacity building to other African countries as part of its support programme to the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organisation (WHO).

CERI has already received fellows from 21 African countries to be trained in genomics, bioinformatics, big data and artificial intelligence analysis. CERI’s last call for fellows received more than 200 applications.

A high-level international delegation, led by the WHO director-general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus visited SU’s Tygerberg Campus, and specifically the BMRI and CERI, in February.

Further, in addition to genomics surveillance, CERI is also a partner-member of the South African mRNA Vaccine Consortium, selected by the WHO to become the first Covid-19 mRNA Vaccine Technology Transfer Hub.

In January, President Cyril Ramaphosa and the biotech investor of NantAfrica Dr Patrick Soon-Shiong also paid CERI and the BMRI at the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences a visit to view its cutting-edge facilities.

“It is fantastic to see that the R1.5-billion investment by SU on its campus is attracting international attention. We are very proud to be part of this and will work hard to help South Africa and Africa to continue to be listed as a top technological setting in the world,” De Oliveira says.