A United States-based Zimbabwean scientist who was heavily involved in the development of the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine, Tatenda Shopera, says his dream is to help eradicate diseases that are burdening Africa.
Shopera (TS) told Alpha Media Holdings chairman Trevor Ncube (TN) on the platform In Conversation with Trevor that he believes the dream “can be achieved in our lifetime, but it requires effort, hard work, collaboration and dedicated funding” .
He also spoke about his difficult upringing in Harare’s Mbare suburb and his journey to the top.
Below are excerpts from the interview.
TN: Dr. Tatenda Shopera, welcome to In Conversation with Trevor. I am glad you were able to create time to join us.
TS: Thank you, Trevor, for having me. I just want to start by stating that I am here in my own capacity, thank you so much.
TN: So, you are a senior scientist at Pfizer, Dr Shopera? You were part of the team that developed the vaccine.
How does it feel, Dr Shopera, to be at the cutting edge of science, where you have this potential to make a huge impact on humanity?
TS: It is a rewarding and fulfilling experience.
Trevor, I have always believed that life is not just about me, or an individual, but the impact that one has on the society.
I am thankful that I had the opportunity to make an impact at a global scale.
After my recent announcement on LinkedIn, I have received an outpouring of support and appreciation from people all over the world.
The response that I got from Zimbabweans and Africans, it was just amazing and for me it was a testament of how proud people back home are because of these achievements.
TN: Is this the kind of response you anticipated, Dr Shopera? Or this is coming as a complete surprise to you?
TS: It was a complete surprise.
In December 2020 after we officially had the approval of the vaccine, I just decided to share the news with the world and celebrate.
The next day I woke up, everybody was just extremely happy about that achievement. So, to me it was a complete surprise.
TN: Talk to me about the emotions. I mean surprise is an interesting word, but talk to me about the emotions that you went through, seeing all this outpouring coming from Zimbabweans in the first instance and then the rest of the continent.
TS: It was fulfilling for me because I have always wanted to contribute and help the society, and seeing that level of appreciation from people, it brought me to tears.
TN: The other day, four or five days ago, you actually managed to get your first dose of the vaccine you actually helped to develop. How was that experience?
TS: So, to me, I grew up in Africa. So just looking at medicines coming into Africa, thinking that getting a dose of something that I participated in, for me that was rewarding.
TN: I must say, Dr Shopera, that we are having this conversation with you, because as Zimbabweans we are very proud of the work that you have done.
Indeed I think I have noticed quite a number of similar responses directed towards you. So congratulations. Well done.
We are very proud of the work that you have done and the limelight that you are receiving.
I am looking forward to having a conversation with you, where you are going to take us through what it was like to be involved in this process of the vaccine and how long it took and so forth.
Naturally right now you are still trying to receive the clearance from your bosses for you to be able to do that.
TS: Yes, in the future we can definitely do that.
TN: You were born on September 21, 1986 in Mbare, Nenyere Flats to be exact, in Magaba.
Describe to us, Dr Shopera, what it was like growing up in what you call the dusty streets of Mbare. Describe that experience for us.
TS: I grew up in a large family of eight children, we were four girls and four boys.
In my family we have two pairs of twins, and I am actually in-between.
About my upbringing, there are two important highlights that have shaped who I am today.
My birth certificate says that I was born in Masvingo, so Masvingo is actually my birthplace and I am very much of that area.
In reality, however, I was born in Mbare at Edith Opperman Maternity Clinic.
So, what happened then was at that time after giving birth, parents would get a birth card, which was only valid for about six months.
Then they would use this card to apply for the actual birth certificate.
My birth card was stolen, so that meant that I did not have a birth certificate, and so I could not enrol into primary school.
The second challenge was that because I did not have a birth certificate, the only way I could start school was to do an ear-holding test, and if one passed that test they could enrol into school.
The problem with me was that I was very short, so I could not reach my ear.
Every time I would try to enrol at Chirodzo Primary School, I would be taken down, and this happened twice.
They would put us in two lines.
The people on the right, were those who passed the test, then one would start their primary school.
If you fail, they would put you in the line on the left and take you outside the school.
So for me I was out in the line on the left and I was sick and tired of it because I wanted to start school.
So on my way out I decided to sneak into the other line, and this is how I began my primary schooling at Chirodzo Primary School.
Living in the Nenyere Flats area of Mbare is extremely tough.
TN: What a story, what a story. So, your other siblings, where are they now? What are they doing?
TS: My siblings are now living in Budiriro. My younger brother has just graduated now. He is working. My older bother passed away in 2012.
TN: So sorry about that.
So, from what you are saying then, I get the sense that your parents, your mother and father, battled to put you through school and you had to find these piece jobs to be able to put you through school? Is that the case?
TS: Yes. I just wanted to help them out.
TN: You say growing up in Mbare was tough. It toughened you? What other lessons have you kept that emanate for your growing up in Mbare?
TS: Living in Mbare taught me to work hard.
It taught me not to give up, to always try, and these lessons I have carried with me throughout my life.
They have helped me get to where I am today.
TN: Where did you then go to do your high school?
TS: After primary school I enrolled for high school at Harare High School, which was opposite Chirodzo Primary School.
TN: I see. Now talk to me now, Dr. I was looking at your timeline, I know we are not going to get to the Pfizer vaccine per se, as we agreed we would not do that until you get the clearance, but what do you say to people who are suspicious or are completely opposed to vaccines?
TS: I think we need to educate each other. We need to educate each other. Once we understand the science, it becomes extremely important.
TN: From where you sit, where do you think the opposition comes from? Do you think it is ignorance? Do you think it is fear?
TS: I understand why people are fearful, but again, the most important thing I think the medical field should do is to try to simplify the science, and make sure that they are explaining to people so that they understand what is happening.
By doing that, once people understand how things work, the science behind it, it becomes extremely easy.
TN: Do you feel the pressure, Dr?
You are sitting in Missouri right now, having come all the way from Mbare.
The gap between Mbare and Missouri is huge.
Do you feel the burden on you to give back to the society that has given so much to you?
TS: No, I do not feel the pressure, Trevor, but I feel hopeful because there are many Africans across the world right now who are getting the skills and the experience that will be critical for us to help those back home.
So, I am hopeful that this also is an opportunity for us, whatever skill set each of us is getting, we will one day help develop Africa, we will bring solutions.
TN: You have a big dream, Dr Shopera, and that dream is to eradicate diseases that are burdening Africa. Talk to me about that dream.
TS: It is a dream that I believe can be achieved in our lifetime, but it requires effort, hard work, collaboration and dedicated funding.
As Africans, we must actively participate in science, and this will help us bring solutions.
I think that it requires everyone at every level to participate.
Myself as an individual, organisations at every level and governments.
I think it is something that we can do in our lifetime, if we can harness the power.
TN: Do you feel sitting where you are sitting right now, and seeing what you are seeing in Zimbabwe and seeing what is happening on the continent, that the continent fully embraces the innovations of science and technology?
TS: I think they are learning.
Now with the importance of technological advancement and now they are starting to see the importance of science and technology.
Of course, we are still in the early stages of beginning to adopt science, but I think that if we can embrace science and technology we can do amazing things in Africa.
- “In Conversation with Trevor” is a weekly show broadcast on YouTube.com//InConversationWithTrevor. Please get your free YouTube subscription to this channel. The conversations are sponsored by Titan Law.