Sars hero joins scientists' hall of fame

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 July, 2006, 12:00am

Sars and bird flu expert Malik Peiris has been inducted as a Fellow of the world's oldest national academy of sciences, joining eminent scientists Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and Stephen Hawking on its rolls.

The chair professor of microbiology at the University of Hong Kong and chief of virology at Queen Mary Hospital was one of 44 elected to the Fellowship of the Royal Society for their exceptional contributions.

'Professor Peiris was honoured for his research into severe acute respiratory syndrome [Sars] and other human viral infections that cause respiratory disease,' the latest University of Hong Kong bulletin says.

Professor Peiris was inducted as a Fellow during a ceremony at the Royal Society's headquarters in London on Friday.

Britain's national science academy influences science policy and derives its 'authoritative status from its 1,400 Fellows and foreign members', its website says.

The election process, involving 113 Fellows plus 21 council members and hundreds of referees, is based on peer review. A secret ballot was held on May 18. Each year, up to 44 new Fellows, who must be citizens or residents of Commonwealth countries or Ireland, may be elected annually. Professor Peiris is from Sri Lanka.

Admissions day required Professor Peiris to sign the Charter Book and the Obligation of the Fellows of the Royal Society. 'It was of course a great honour for me and for the whole of the University of Hong Kong team of microbiologists overall,' Professor Peiris said from London yesterday.

Admissions day was a three-hour traditional affair befitting a 364-year-old science academy, he said.

The only other Asian among the 44 new Fellows was Atta Ur Rahman, chairman of Pakistan's Higher Education Commission and director of the University of Karachi's research centre in chemistry.

Professor Peiris said he was cited for his work on Sars, bird flu and other research. He discovered the agent that caused Sars - a novel coronavirus that killed 774 people worldwide in 2003, 299 of them in Hong Kong. He was also part of the team the World Health Organisation cited in 1997 for stopping H5N1 flu in Hong Kong.

Professor Peiris prefers not to claim sole credit, saying discovering Sars and the first genetic sequencing of the virus was a team effort.

'Let's get this straight - Malik is the one who discovered Sars, not the Centres for Disease Control, not someone else. They were all behind,' bird flu expert Robert Webster told Nature Medicine in 2004. 'We all thought it was bird flu. He is the one that identified Sars.'

Professor Peiris has been with the University of Hong Kong since 1995.