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Dr. Malik Peiris and Dr. Yi Guan have worked together since 1997 to understand how viruses spread from animals to humans, and were the first to identify how SARS spread from a wild animal market in 2003.Illustration by Murat Yükselir

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When Dr. Malik Peiris was in high school in his native Sri Lanka, a teacher assigned a reading of Louis Pasteur’s biography as a way of improving students’ English-language vocabulary.

That homework changed the teenager’s life; reading a book about the father of microbiology inspired 14-year-old Malik to study science and medicine, and eventually become one of the world’s leading virologists.

Now, Dr. Peiris, along with long-time collaborator Dr. Yi Guan, has been awarded the prestigious John Dirks Canada Gairdner Global Health Award for shaping the world’s knowledge of how influenza viruses and coronaviruses jump from animals to humans.

Specifically, the pair identified the coronavirus responsible for severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and how it emerged in 2003 from wild animal markets in Guangdong, China. Just as importantly, they published a number of seminal papers on avian influenzas such as H5N1, H9N2 and H7N9, and developed evidence-based protocols on how to prevent the spread of potentially pandemic strains.

The scientists are based at the University of Hong Kong; Dr. Peiris is the chair in virology and Dr. Guan the chair of emerging viral diseases. They have been working together since 1997.

Their work on zoonotic diseases (those that spread between animals and humans) has taken on new importance in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In fact, both researchers have gone on the record in recent years predicting there would be a global pandemic because ideal conditions are being created for the emergence of new viruses, including climate change, massive live animal markets, and encroachment of human settlements into wild areas.

Dr. Guan, in particular, warned that new strains of influenza such as H7N9 “pose the greatest threat to humanity in the past 100 years.”

Dr. Peiris added: “It’s sad to say many of us predicted a global pandemic. All the warnings were there but still we were not prepared.”

The pair’s best-known work, early identification of the SARS virus and creation of a test, is credited with helping rein in that pandemic, but it came about quite by accident.

When reports of an unusual pneumonia emerged out of Guangdong, they initially believed it was a resurgence of H5N1 influenza, which had devastated poultry in Asia in 1997 and also jumped to humans.

Their groundbreaking work showed dangerous new influenza viruses emerge principally when farm-raised and wild birds mingle, as they do in massive live poultry markets.

The same underlying issues allow novel coronaviruses to emerge when species of wild animals that don’t usually interact are kept and sold in live animal markets.

Dr. Peiris said that, ideally, “these markets simply should not exist, but there are hundreds of years of tradition that can’t be ignored.”

So the researchers came up with a number of mitigation measures, including separating waterfowl from poultry, vaccinating birds against influenza, temporary market closures and vigorous surveillance.

The approach has dramatically reduced outbreaks in poultry and, by extension, threats to humans.

“We can’t precisely predict the next pandemic virus,” Dr. Peiris said, “but if we do good surveillance and identify pathogens early, we can be prepared.”

Dr. Peiris said he and Dr. Guan were particularly grateful for the Gairdner recognition because scientists like virologists and epidemiologists who toil doing fieldwork and spend countless hours in laboratories rarely get the attention of those who develop drugs and vaccines.

“The real glamour lies in vaccines and such, not in getting your boots dirty,” he said.

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