Dr. Malik Peiris Elected to the National Academy of Sciences

Dr. Malik Peiris, part of St. Jude Center of Excellence for Influenza Research and Surveillance (SJCEIRS), was elected as a foreign associate of the National Academy of Sciences in May 2017. Dr. Peiris is a Professor and Chair of Virology in the School of Public Health at the University of Hong Kong. The award recognizes his many significant contributions to the field of virology, including the discovery of the SARS coronavirus, furthering understanding of the cytokine storm associated with H5N1 infection in humans, and following the emergence and pathogenesis of the 2009 H1N1 pandemic influenza virus. The DPCC Communications team spoke with Dr. Peiris regarding the appointment, history of CEIRS, and state of infectious disease preparedness.

A Brief History of CEIRS

Dr. Peiris was integral to the development of the CEIRS program. Following the outbreaks of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) H5N1 in 1997, Dr. Robert Webster (SJCEIRS), Dr. Peiris, and others championed efforts for dedicated avian and swine influenza research and surveillance activities. Together, they received a contract from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 1999 to address pandemic preparedness in Asia and established surveillance activities in Hong Kong and elsewhere to identify and characterize influenza viruses with pandemic potential. As a distributed group of researchers, the program’s early focus on developing and coordinating group activities was critical for successfully addressing global pandemic preparedness and led the NIH to develop the CEIRS Network of today. CEIRS investigators nominated Peiris for the prestigious award to recognize his contributions to the field at large.

Further Contributions to Pandemic Preparedness

In response to the 2003 SARS outbreak, the World Health Organization (WHO) established a separate group to investigate and respond to the novel pathogen. These efforts spurred early investigations of the virus that aided in curtailing the epidemic as another example of how collaborative networks can rapidly and successfully support outbreak response and downstream activities. Dr. Peiris and his group, along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), isolated and published the first genetic sequences of the SARS coronavirus in 2003, a notable contribution to the field. (see Peiris et al. and Ksiazek et al.)

Accolades and Others Acknowledged

Speaking on the award, Dr. Peiris was “greatly honored to be recognized.” However, he sees it as recognition for the entire group at the University of Hong Kong, noting the importance of acknowledging other contributors. During the 1997 HPAI H5N1 outbreak in China, Dr. Peiris, along with Dr. Ken Shortridge, Dr. Yi Guan, and many others from the University of Hong Kong were at the forefront of response efforts and helped establish the group they have today. Peiris also expressed gratitude for Dr. Webster as “his mentorship and guidance in the early years had a huge impact on research in recent years.” Along with the CEIRS Network, the team has grown since the start of the program with researchers now in Hong Kong and Shantou.

From Early Inspirations to the State of the Science

On a personal note, Dr. Peiris shared his inspiration to pursue research in the field of infectious disease. He drew from early founding figures of microbiology, Drs. Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch. Pasteur’s life story inspired his path towards infectious diseases and medicine, while Koch spurred an interest in research. Peiris continues his influential work on viruses emerging at the human-animal interface, including H7N9 influenza viruses and MERS coronavirus. Much more is known about the origin of SARS and other coronaviruses, like those causing the common cold, than of MERS. Viruses “on the horizon” continue to emerge from animals and will have a major impact on human health. He encouraged others “to take on the challenges posed by infectious diseases,” as they are most certainly not solved.

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