Microbiologists were heroes in identifying the Sars virus

Microbiologists in Hong Kong gained respect when they identified the virus that causes Sars

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 February, 2013, 5:41am

Before Sars struck in 2003, few people paid much heed to microbiologists. While they toiled away over Petri dishes in obscurity, it was the frontline medics who claimed the glory.

But by the time the epidemic ended, microbiologists such as Professor Yuen Kwok-yung were heroes for helping to come up with a solution to rid the city of the disease. Never again would Hongkongers ignore the significance of laboratory work to examine microscopic organisms that can have a devastating effect.

"Microbiologists used to receive little respect," said Yuen, of the University of Hong Kong. "Nobody really cared about the department, not even the medical staff.

"When I first told my mother I was entering microbiology, she did not understand what it was, as it was not like a doctor who treats patients with heart, lung or liver problems."

But the status of the department has been transformed in the subsequent decade.

"Now we have more people willing to join us ... the government has invested hundreds of millions every year for related research," said Yuen, whose main research interests are microbe hunting and studying emerging infectious diseases.

Yuen was honoured as one of Time magazine's "Asian heroes of the year" in 2003 for helping crack the mystery of an epidemic which had no obvious cause or source. Amid widespread panic on the streets, Yuen and his team were able to identify the coronavirus that causes Sars. That provided the first step towards effective diagnosis and later treatment of Sars.

Within a few months, the source of the virus was traced back to the Chinese horseshoe bat, via the civet cat.

Looking back, Yuen said the most difficult part of the research was proving that the virus was what caused Sars symptoms such as pneumonia. He collected thousands of samples every day from patients to prove his findings.

"Once we confirmed it, it was a really important milestone in the whole epidemic," Yuen said.

The findings have had a lasting impact on microbiology, especially after it put the bat - now known as one of the perfect reservoirs for the virus - into the spotlight.

"The direction of research has changed since the bat came into the picture. Experts from around the world all talk about the bat now. We learned a lesson that studies should not involve just humans, and we were then led into a larger area - to study animal-related diseases. Nothing is more important than this course now," he said.

Despite the hardships of his round-the-clock work to tackle Sars - he lost 5kg during the ordeal, which he has still not put back on - he is sanguine about the experience.

"I deal with facts and research. I am not a sentimental person. But it is true that we [the researchers] suffered a great amount of pressure and many sleepless nights."

Yuen dreamed of being an astronaut growing up, but after training in medicine he aimed to become a "virus hunter".

He has been dubbed the "royal investigator" after the government appointed him to probe the finding of bacteria that causes legionnaires' disease at the new government headquarters in Admiralty in January last year, and contamination of dental equipment at HKU.

"I would not do anything if I did not find it fun," he said. "If I cannot figure out what caused a person to be sick, I keep thinking about it all the time. It is like an unsolved puzzle. Sometimes it takes many years before I get to an answer."