HKU Flu Fighters are First Responders Against Global Pandemics

HKU Flu Fighters are First Responders Against Global Pandemics


Prof. Malik Peiris

Prof. Yi Guan

Prof. Leo Poon

Knowledge exchange, which is firmly underpinned by their excellent research, is an integral part of the School of Public Health's work to achieve impact in public health well beyond the academic world.

It is often said that the next global pandemic is not a matter of "if" but "when". The Director of the School of Public Health, Professor Malik Peiris, together with Professor Yi Guan, Professor Leo Poon and their colleagues, have been at the forefront of efforts to push that likelihood further into the future.

Although most popularly known for their work on SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), they have been key players in the ongoing battle against other emerging infectious diseases, from bird flu to swine flu and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome).

Their achievements started with the H5N1 bird flu outbreak in Hong Kong in 1997, which infected 18 people and prompted them to begin systematically monitoring poultry and eggs and step up their study of bird flu viruses. As a result, they found evidence that H5N1 was re-emerging in 2000 and worked with the government to devise a management plan that included banning quail in markets and enforcing rest days in markets to break the transmission of the disease.

That experience and know-how proved crucial in 2004 when bird flu was detected in several countries in the region - but not Hong Kong. Professor Peiris and his team spent time in Indonesia in particular providing training and advice to health professionals, and as a WHO (World Health Organization) H5 reference laboratory, provided laboratory support for the confirmation of the first human H5N1 case detected in that country.

"Hong Kong has not had a single locally acquired case of H5N1 or H7N9 [both avian flu viruses] since 1997," he said. "We can take satisfaction in providing understanding of what was going on, and providing evidence-based interventions to mitigate the threat."

Their work on SARS benefited from their bird flu experience. They were the first in the world to identify the coronavirus involved and they quickly assembled diagnostic tests that were shared with the world. During the outbreak they worked closely with local and international organisations, including the WHO, and gained worldwide recognition for their contributions – not only to the scientific frontier but also global pandemic control.

The School's persistent work in monitoring the human-animal interface and studying viruses also enabled it to contribute to the understanding and control of swine flu in 2009. "At the time of the pandemic, around half of all the genetic information about swine influenza viruses, globally, came from our group," Professor Peiris said. The School also contributed to an understanding about how the virus spreads among families and its virulence.

Most recently, they have been part of the international effort to contain MERS. They also continue to work closely with the WHO and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations to share information, conduct training courses and serve as members of various committees (for instance, the committees on vaccine strain selection and diagnoses).

And of course, Professor Peiris and his team continue to work closely with local health authorities and the community. They have even launched an awareness-raising programme for primary and secondary schools,called 'Little Dr Flu', to teach students about the ways in which viruses spread, provide basic scientific knowledge, and show them how to maintain good hygiene.

Knowledge exchange, which is firmly underpinned by their excellent research, is an integral part of the School's work to achieve impact in public health well beyond the academic world. "After 1997, after H5N1, our international connections have been gradually developing. We are very much on the international map in terms of emerging infectious diseases," Professor Peiris said.