The past few years, the world has understandably been preoccupied by news about the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s almost easy to forget that it wasn’t that long ago that infectious disease experts helped us avoid another coronavirus catastrophe when their recommendations snuffed out the early outbreaks of SARS.
Malik Peiris and Yi Guan, 2021 John Dirks Canada Gairdner Award laureates, have been collaborators at the University of Hong Kong since the days of the H5N1 avian flu outbreak, which started in live poultry markets in southern China and Hong Kong. It was a deadly disease that killed up to 60 percent of people who were infected. They traced the infections back to the source and closed the markets, thereby interrupting the animal-to-human transmission chains.
From there, they established evidence-based protocols for periodic live poultry market closures and strategies for poultry vaccines that have helped control several avian influenza virus strains in Asia.
“My work over the last 30 or 40 years really has been understanding infectious diseases, particularly those new emerging infections that jump from animals to humans. In 2003, we had SARS emerging in southern China, spilling away into Hong Kong, and that spread worldwide, indeed,” says Peiris.
“So our work was able to very quickly identify the causative agent to be a new coronavirus and to develop diagnostic tests to identify these patients and work out methods to control this.”
Peiris led a team that first identified the novel coronavirus that causes SARS, going on to characterize the disease and its transmission. They quickly developed a diagnostic test that was shared and used internationally.
“My colleague Yi Guan went on to identify where the virus jumped to humans from, which was in these game animal markets in Hong Kong, and that work I’m sure prevented the re-emergence of SARS from that animal-amplifying venue,” adds Peiris.
“This work successfully averted maybe the first pandemic of coronavirus,” notes Guan.
By contrast, the early COVID-19 outbreaks weren’t stopped soon enough, leaving the entire world at war with a virus.
“The best way is avoiding before it’s mature, before the pandemic can really fully outbreak. So we have much, much more difficulty in front of us,” says Guan.
But that keeps these collaborators working hard on the best strategies to monitor and contain emerging infectious diseases, because they understand what’s at stake.
“If you’re working hard, you have an opportunity to save millions and millions of people’s lives,” adds Guan. “So this is the inspiration to overcome all these kinds of difficulties.”