The President of the Swiss Confederation, His Excellency Alain Berset visited the Botswana Harvard AIDS Institute Partnership (BHP) this morning, Tuesday 7th February 2023 to tour the laboratory where the Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2 was first discovered. President Berset is in Botswana for a three-day State Visit at the invitation of His Excellency the President of the Republic of Botswana, Dr Mokgweetsi Eric Keabetswe Masisi.

BHP Laboratory Director, Dr Sikhulile Moyo who is credited with the discovery of the Omicron took his Excellency Berset and his entourage for a tour of the Botswana Harvard HIV Reference Laboratory (BHHRL) for the president to appreciate the testing process and how the Omicron was discovered. Dr Moyo briefed the president on Omicron pathogenomics and highlights of BHP research.

The Director of the National Health Laboratory (NHL), Mpaphi Blasis Mbulawa who is also a member of the BHP Board of Members briefed the president on the role played by NHL and BHP on COVID-19 and the National Diagnostic Testing. Mbulawa stated that through collaboration with BHP, they have collectively managed to do 2.3 million COVID-19 tests and they are now ready to do the Monkey Pox testing.

Dr Simani Gaseitsiwe shared with the president highlights of the BHP’s Capacity Building and Training Programme, which he said has produced more than 20 Masters and PhDs in a space of 12 years. He noted that BHP will be highly grateful to have collaborations that will strengthen the training programme.

Leading open forum discussion, BHP Chief Executive, Dr Joseph Makhema pointed out that BHP is looking at how it can strengthen the capacities it has generated in order to be able to deal with other public health challenges including climate change. He said BHP has with insufficient resources, been able to achieve a lot from HIV to COVID-19. “One wonders what more can we achieve with better resources and strengthened capacities,” he said.

The Acting Minister of Health, Sethomo Lelatisitswe also galvanized for the need of developing and strengthening of BHP capacities, noting that the Botswana Government is committed to support the institution.

For his remarks, President Berset thanked BHP for the discovery of the Omicron and sounding the alarm and sharing the experiences with the wolrd. “I was very impressed by your transition from HIV to COVID-19. You did a really amazing job,” said President Berset, observing on how BHP leveraged its experience in sequencing HIV to tracking SARS-CoV-2 pathogens which lead to the discovery of Omicron.

“Omicron was not bad news, it was good news,” explaining that the swift alert on the Omicron variant of SAR-CoV-2 was the way to achieving global immunity as countries stepped up their response and preparedness to control the virus.

The discovery and knowledge of Omicron also lead to pharmaceuticals to adapt and strengthen their COVID-19 vaccines to be able for cater for the new variant.

“I have this morning signed a Declaration of Intent of Cooperation with Botswana in the area of health and I am sure that BHP will have a role to play in this,” said President Berset.

He said it will be important to have direct contact with laboratories so as to accelerate interactions on collaboration opportunities.