H7N9 virus

Yuen Kwok-yung - the stoic scientist soldiers on

The man behind the city's bird flu findings is no stranger to meeting dead ends in research, he simply lets go and moves on

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 April, 2013, 4:52am


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Long before the H7N9 novel coronavirus emerged in the mainland, University of Hong Kong microbiologist Yuen Kwok-yung, along with other researchers, warned the world that if another Sars-like pandemic struck, the disease would likely come from an animal. Some even went as far as to pinpoint the bird as a carrier.

Now that the new virus has emerged, Hong Kong has turned once more to the researchers it relied upon when the severe acute respiratory syndrome struck the city a decade ago.

Amid fears that the H7N9 would soon reach our shores, Yuen, whose research is ongoing, reassured the public not to be overly worried as so far, no poultry or wild bird in the city had tested positive for the disease.

The scientist, 57, who was honoured as an Asian hero by Time magazine after the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak, even took time off from his work to motivate students in a conference earlier this month.

"My research doesn't always bear fruit. Actually, almost half of it goes down the drain," Yuen told the youth conference. "But it's okay to fail. You have to learn to put it down and to go for another one instead."

He must have been drawing on his experiences in life.

Trained as a surgeon at HKU, he switched career track to become a physician and worked in the United Christian Hospital, where he met his wife who was a nurse in its intensive care unit.

Then, in 1989, in search of "a change and challenge", he switched his field to microbiology. "Becoming a microbiologist was never a part of my dream when I was young," he said.

As a child, he wanted to become an astronaut. "But it was impossible as no astronaut wore glasses. And I was told … there was no Chinese astronaut. So I had to have another ambition.

"After that, I wanted to become a vet as I love animals very much. But there was no such subject in Hong Kong and my family could not afford to send me to study in Australia. So I had to give that up too. And that's how I became a doctor.

"You may not be able to do just what you want, but still, you can have a passion for your job."

No one would doubt this virus hunter's passion for his research

But when asked to share how he felt after a significant finding, he said simply: "I'm not a sentimental person with a lot of feelings to share. I'm a scientist; I deal with data and facts.

"When I face difficulties, I write down all the problems ... Having them listed out helps to clear my mind."

Yuen was among a team of experts that visited the mainland a few weeks ago to probe the cause behind the H7N9 outbreak there.

That he was on the team was no surprise as he was no stranger to the bird flu. He gained international fame during the city's 1997 H5N1 outbreak for being the first scientist to report in a medical journal, the Lancet, about the unusual clinical severity and high mortality of patients infected with the disease.

And even before news of the H7N9 virus emerged in the mainland last month, the researcher alarmed the world with his finding on the novel coronavirus in the Middle East. He said the Sars-related virus that had killed 11 people was not just potentially deadlier than Sars, but also more "promiscuous" in that it could infect different species.

Yuen's contribution to global public health is undeniable. He was invited by the government to look into a range of outbreaks that have puzzled other doctors, including the legionnaires' disease that struck the new administration headquarters in Admiralty in January last year and the contamination of dental equipment in HKU earlier this year.

Asked about how he felt being dubbed the "royal investigator", he replied plainly that he found the work quite fun.


Yuen Kwok-yung

Age: 57

Marital status: Married

1981: Graduated from the University of Hong Kong;
Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians (London, Edinburgh, Ireland), Surgeons (Glasgow) and Pathologists (UK)

Henry Fok Professor and Chair in Infectious Diseases, Department of Microbiology, University of Hong Kong;
Director for the Ministry of Science and Technology of China's State Key Laboratory of Emerging Infectious Diseases;
Founding co-director of the Hong Kong University-Pasteur Research Centre