After Sars, Hong Kong leads the way in fighting infectious diseases

After Sars, the city set up a crack HKU laboratory to tackle quick responses to potential outbreaks

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 April, 2013, 6:58am

A decade after Sars, Hong Kong has developed a reputation as a world leader in research into emerging infectious diseases.

Much of the credit goes to a national laboratory set up at the University of Hong Kong after the deadly 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak.

The virus infected 1,755 people and claimed 299 lives. Worldwide, 8,439 were infected, of whom 812 died.

The following year, plans were set in motion to establish the State Key Laboratory for Emerging Infectious Diseases, which is linked with similar institutions on the mainland. The unit was officially launched in July 2005 by the Ministry of Science and Technology.

Members include infectious disease experts: microbiologist Professor Yuen Kwok-yung and flu virologist Professor Joseph Sriyal Malik Peiris.

Since 2005, the 16-member research lab has produced more than 150 peer-reviewed research articles. It is run by Yuen, who headed the medical team that identified the coronavirus causing Sars and provided the first step towards effective diagnosis and treatment.

Yuen received a Silver Bauhinia Star for the discovery and was honoured as one of Time magazine's "Asian heroes of the year" in 2003.

Within months of his discovery, the team traced the virus to the Chinese horseshoe bat, via the civet cat.

The findings made a significant impact on microbiology and marked a change in focus. "The direction of research has changed since the bat came into the picture," Yuen said this year.

"Experts from around the world all talk about the bat now. We learned that studies should not involve just humans, and we were then led into a larger area - animal-related diseases."

Microbiologist Guan Yi, head of the lab's mainland work, gained fame in May 2003 when he tracked down civet cats - sold for food at a Guangdong market - as a host of the Sars virus.

The founding of the labs has helped to quicken response to several outbreaks, such as the swine flu pandemic in 2009.

Guan said swine flu was a good test. "The city passed a small test. The response was quick, and the system is already mature," he said. "[If Sars returns] it will not cause a big disaster again. It will not have the chance."

Peiris, of HKU's School of Public Health, was among the first to crack the DNA code of the H7N9 bird flu virus.