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Our “Firsts” on COVID-19

Our researchers unveiled a virus-specific probe and primer to detect the SARS-CoV-2 virus on January 16, only six days after Mainland China had released the virus’s genetic sequence. Public health laboratories have since been able to use this test to efficiently pinpoint the presence of the virus in samples.

As soon as stories began circulating about a mystery virus in Mainland China in early January, HKUMed scholars were on the case. Within a few weeks, we were able to show what the virus looked like and provide early indications of how it spread:

  • By mid-January, we had developed a protocol for detecting COVID-19 in suspected human cases which was one of the earliest diagnostic methods shared on the WHO website. Reagents and methods were shared with over 70 countries and territories.
  • By the end of January, we reported the first evidence of human-to-human transmission of the virus involving a family case diagnosed and managed at HKU-Shenzhen Hospital.
HKU researchers showed that SARS-CoV-2 had infected a Shenzhen family cluster of 6 patients, of whom 5 had
travelled to Wuhan. This study is the first demonstration of human to human transmission. The infection can be asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic. Their work included epidemiological, clinical, radiological, laboratory, and genomic studies.
  • By early February, we had documented that the viral shedding profile of SARS-CoV-2 indicated transmission early in the course of the illness, highlighting that it was unlikely to be contained in the way that SARS had
    been in 2003.
  • By early February, we proposed the use of deep throat saliva as a diagnostic specimen type for the detection of SARS-CoV-2.
  • Some of the first electron microscope images of the SARS-CoV-2 virus came from HKUMed labs working with the Faculty of Engineering, which helped other researchers and medical professionals to identify the virus in their own work.
A pseudo-colour scan electron micrograph of SARS-CoV-2 grown in culture from a patient isolate. After 24 hours, large numbers of viral particles (orange) appeared on the surface of the cell (blue).
  • Two studies produced through the WHO Collaboration Centre alerted the world to the pandemic and the threat it posed, based on the pattern of case arisings in the first half of January. One study analysed the transmission dynamics of infection and provided rules for quarantine and isolation (the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention also participated), the other study modelled and forecast the spread of infection across Mainland China and the world through a mathematical dispersion model. The projections, produced in late January, were in many ways materialised.
  • We also showed that China’s nationwide aggressive control measures halted the first wave of COVID-19 in provinces outside Hubei province, the epicentre of the epidemic. And we were the first to model the potential
    adverse consequences of prematurely relaxing interventions, showing how such a decision might lead to a subsequent wave of COVID-19.

Later, in early May, we showed that the triple combination antiviral therapy of interferon beta-1b, lopinavir-ritonavir and ribavirin could effectively suppress the SARS-CoV-2 viral load and cytokine, which resulted in the earlier clinical improvement and discharge of COVID-19 patients.

By the end of summer 2020, HKUMed scholars were also the first in the world to document that a patient previously recovered from COVID-19 had been reinfected with SARS-CoV-2. Samples taken from the patient at each time of infection were compared and shown to be two different lineages of the virus.

The world’s first nasal spray COVID-19 vaccine was also given the green light for human clinical trials in September. This flubased vaccine is being developed by the State Key Laboratory of Emerging Infectious Diseases in partnership with Xiamen University.

Our researchers developed a vaccine candidate based on the established flu-based DelNS1 live attenuated influenza virus (LAIV) platform. It was one of five vaccine technologies selected by China’s Ministry of Science and Technology for further evaluation.

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