HKU Bulletin May 2020 (Vol.21 No.2)

HKU’s LKS Faculty of Medicine (HKUMed) has been at the forefront of research into emerging infectious diseases for decades, producing groundbreaking work on H5N1 and H9N1 bird flus, H1N1 swine flu, SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome). Now, with COVID-19, that expertise is being applied to the most critical task yet: helping the world understand and contain this new coronavirus that has spread rapidly around the globe. Scholars in the Faculty were the first in the world to produce a detailed cluster report, epidemiology report, electron microscope images and mathematical model of the potential spread of the virus – all within a few weeks of COVID-19 taking hold in Wuhan city in Mainland China. Their research has continued apace ever since. In addition, two HKUMed experts – Professor Gabriel Leung, the Dean and Helen and Francis Zimmern Professor in Population Health, and Professor Yuen Kwok-yung, Henry Fok Professor in Infectious Diseases and Co-Director of the State Key Laboratory for Emerging Infectious Diseases in the Department of Microbiology – were part of the 25-member World Health Organization (WHO)-China Joint Mission that visited the Mainland in February to study the state of the epidemic and the effectiveness of China’s response. Professor Leung also co- convenes the WHO’s research group on the epidemiology of COVID-19 and testified to the British parliament via video link on HKU’s measures to contain the outbreak. HKUMed experts have also been advising the Hong Kong government on its response to the disease and speaking almost daily to top local and international media outlets, such as 60 Minutes Australia, Al Jazeera, BBC, CBS News, CNN, CCTV, Der Spiegel , Financial Times , The Guardian , NBC News, The New York Times , The New Yorker , NHK, Politico, Phoenix TV and The Wall Street Journal, to provide current scientific and epidemiological information that has helped communities and individuals develop their response to COVID-19. “Over the past two decades, HKUMed has been advancing our capabilities in response The pandemic caused by COVID-19 (for coronavirus-2019) has upended all areas of life around the world. HKU’s Medical Faculty, one of the world’s foremost research centres for emerging infectious diseases, has played a central role in the effort to contain it. HKU’S VIRUS EXPERTS CALLED TO ACTION to threats from emerging infections. We have world-leading experts and excellent research facilities that we were able to deploy immediately when COVID-19 emerged. We have the capabilities to help not just Hong Kong and the region but also the whole world in coping with this threat,”Professor Leung said. Influencing policy, raising alarms Those capabilities include physical infrastructure, such as two P3 (biosafety) laboratories, research programmes such as the State Key Laboratory for Emerging Infectious Diseases, the WHO Collaborating Centre for Infectious Disease Epidemiology and Control and a WHO H5 reference laboratory that are both based in the Faculty, and more than 55 Rapid nucleic acid amplification tests that were developed by HKUMed to detect COVID-19 in patients are being used by public health laboratories in more than 70 countries and territories. researchers listed among the top one per cent in their fields based on the number of citations, according to Clarivate Analytics. Virologist Professor Malik Peiris, TamWah-Ching Professor in Medical Science, who earlier published landmark research on SARS and MERS, was one of the first to isolate the virus outside of Mainland China and, together with Professor John Nicholls of the Department of Pathology, produced the first images of the COVID-19 virus’ replication in cells (the virus is officially known as SARS-CoV-2). He also worked with Professor Leo Poon to rapidly establish assays for detection of SARS-CoV-2, a test that has been requested by and shared with more than 70 countries and territories. This team also assessed the viral load and Pseudo-colour scanning electron micrograph of SARS-CoV-2 grown in culture from a patient isolate. After 24 hours in culture there are large numbers of viral particles (orange) on the surface of the cell (blue). dynamics, showing that asymptomatic patients could transmit the virus. Clinical microbiologist Professor Yuen, who has been widely cited for his discovery of over 30 novel human and animal coronaviruses since 2003, including the first bat SARS-related coronavirus, led colleagues in providing the first proof of human-to-human transmission of SARS-CoV-2, which is also a bat SARS-related coronavirus. The finding was based on a family cluster from the HKU-Shenzhen Hospital. “This research changed policy control in Mainland China and then the world,” he said. “It was because of the accumulation of virus genomic information from our years of work on emerging infectious diseases that we were able to produce a very good diagnostic test for this family cluster of COVID-19.” Professor Gabriel Leung (left) and Professor Ben Cowling (right) releasing a real-time situation report based on the instantaneous effective reproductive number of COVID-19. We have the capabilities to help not just Hong Kong and the region but also the whole world in coping with this threat. PROFESSOR GABRIEL LEUNG Professor Leung’s portrait by Pan Shiyi Photography 36 The University of Hong Kong Bulletin | May 2020 37 KNOWLEDGE EXCHANGE