Of Bats and VirusesDirector of Emerging Infectious Diseases Programme, Duke-NUS Medical School
The accidental biologist and the pandemic: Duke-NUS’s Professor Wang Linfa is one of the faces of Singapore’s war against COVID-19. We speak to him about the pandemic, what lies ahead, and the importance of research and innovation.
Professor Wang Linfa, director of the Programme in Emerging Infectious Diseases at Duke-NUS Medical School, is one of the leading experts in Singapore working with local and international partners to combat COVID-19. Working with industry, he and his team recently developed a rapid serological test kit that can detect COVID-19 in under one hour.
A member of multiple World Health Organisation committees on COVID-19, Prof Wang’s work has been recognised internationally through various international awards, numerous invited speeches at major international conferences and over 400 scientific papers published in top-tier journals.
In this exclusive interview, Prof Wang shares his thoughts about COVID-19, the challenges that lie ahead, and the importance of research, innovation, and enterprise.
Why do we need to trace the source of the virus and why are bats the number one suspect?
Understanding the root cause of the virus, including human behaviour and environmental conditions that led to this pandemic may provide clues about risk factors for future outbreaks.
Bats are unique. There are over 1,400 species of bats worldwide, and they can be found on nearly every part of the planet except places with extreme climates such as deserts and polar regions. Some species are also known to have long lifespans with one of the oldest setting a record of 41 years in the Siberian wilds.
An interesting thing about bats is their ability to carry loads of deadly viruses and remain resilient to a large degree. They also harbour several viruses that cause deadly diseases in people, including rabies, Ebola and severe acute respiratory syndrome-related coronaviruses (SARS-CoV). That is why studying them may unearth new discoveries that may benefit medical science and healthcare.
I have been researching bats for the last 25 years, and I continued this in Singapore eight years ago when I was awarded a S$ 9.8 million grant from the National Research Foundation (NRF). While the research was much broader, the focus of it was to learn about bats and the viruses associated with it.
What is unique about the COVID-19 virus?
To me, the uniqueness of viruses are their personalities – their traits such as severity and mode of transmission. There are so many viruses that are hidden in nature, and “invisible” to the world until they mutate and start infecting human populations.
For the COVID-19 virus, firstly, it is not unique but different in the sense that the spectrum from asymptomatic to death, is significantly distributed to the asymptomatic end as around 15 per cent develops severe disease.
Secondly, while it was initially thought to only cause pneumonia, which is a small percentage, scientists have found out that it could affect your blood circulation, liver, kidney and recently, there are reports that it causes problems to the brain.
Lastly, while I have mentioned that COVID-19 is not unique, it has features which makes it different and more infectious. Coronaviruses are named after the crown or ‘corona’ that surrounds each virus particle, which is a crown of thorns made up of spike proteins. Those spikes give the virus the ability to invade its host, and among the coronaviruses which have jumped to infect humans, COVID-19’s spikes seem to be most fit for human receptors. This means that it is much more transmissible.
Is there a possibility of COVID-19 spreading to animals?
Yes, it seems highly likely. To understand this better, we need to understand what zoonosis is about. It is the occurrence of diseases being transmitted from animals to humans, and reverse zoonosis is when humans infects other living beings.
There were early reports in China that the first reverse zoonosis case for COVID-19 is with cats, and then followed dogs, and much later, tigers in New York. These are limited transmission cases, meaning it is generally contained.
However, recently there were reports on minks in the Netherlands getting infected with COVID-19. This is a more significant case of “reverse zoonosis”, where the virus was transmitted to minks from infected farmers, and the minks in turn, then infected healthy humans.
This is concerning because if this virus gets transmitted to wildlife animals such as bats which are resilient to deadly viruses, they do not get sick, but they create back-to-back transmission of the virus. This may result in a new reservoir of COVID-19 virus in a geographically different location.
This reservoir could greatly amplify the spill over effects of COVID-19, and virus transmission among wildlife is a great concern.
That said, so far, it seems that most of such cases around the world is well contained.
Can you share more about the rapid smart test kit that you have developed?
Together with GenScript Biotech Corporation and DxDHub, we developed a “rapid smart test kit” known as cPass™. It is the first in the world that allows rapid detection of neutralising antibodies (NAbs) – the specific antibodies present in the serum of COVID-19 patients that are responsible for clearing the viral infection, without the need of live biological materials and biocontainment facilities.
SARS-CoV-2 requires a Biosafety Level (BSL) 3 lab for testing and handling. cPass™ can be rapidly conducted within an hour in most research or clinical labs, without the need of highly skilled operators, and complex laboratory procedures that are generally less sensitive and require several days to obtain results.
The cPass test kit can detect antibodies capable of neutralising the coronavirus in patients in an hour, instead of the usual several days.
Moving forward, I am looking at how this kit can help other societies at a global level. The current World Health Organisation (WHO) dogma states that virus assessment and neutralisation must be done using live virus samples in an appropriate BSL certified lab.
It is my aim to challenge this and I’m currently working with different regulatory bodies in hopes to replace the current “gold standard” for virus neutralisation tests with cPass™. When mass testing is required, I envision that this would be able to benefit other countries, especially those without proper biocontainment facilities, to monitor the infection and immunity in an easier and efficient way.
Why is research coupled with industry relevance important?
While I am interested in basic foundational research, grounding scientific concepts with industry relevance is very important, and the cPass™ rapid test kit is a good example.
From a scientific idea and proof-of-concept data, to filing a patent and launching a commercial product, me and my team did this in just 70 days.
According to our knowledge, the pace of the cPass™ development is the fastest in Singapore, breaking previous records of translational research commercialisation.
I am pleased that Singapore has developed a vibrant research and innovation environment that enables such endeavours of translational research excellence. In my own personal experience, I have never conducted scientific research and made a breakthrough like this at this pace.
That said, there should however be a balance. Basic science is still critical for discoveries to be made and industries or companies are unable to do this kind of research.
What is your advice to budding researchers and scientists?
I grew up in China during the cultural revolution and aspired to become a mechanical engineer because physics was my passion. However, for some reason, educators thought that my math was not good enough and I was told to take up biology instead in a top university in Shanghai.
I made the best of what I had and kept going at it and continuously improved myself in the field, which ultimately shaped who I am today along. The key takeaway is to make the best out of the current opportunities you are have, and doors will open.
Some might say that I am an accidental biologist, but I say that it is no accident but a challenge worth examining and maximising.