Columbia University virologist Professor David Ho and The University of Hong Kong (HKU) microbiologist Professor Kwok-yung Yuen are teaming up to create a global alliance for conducting research in emerging infectious diseases.

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Source: The University of Hong Kong

Professor Yuen Kwok-yung, Professor David Ho and Dean of Medicine Professor Lau Chak-sing

“We are looking forward to deeper collaboration with HKU and several leading institutions in the world by setting up a ‘Pandemic Research Alliance’,” said Professor Ho, who is visiting Hong Kong after spending a week in mainland China. Professor Ho currently holds the positions of Professor of Microbiology & Immunology and Director of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center at Columbia University.

Other partners in discussion include Tsinghua University and Doherty Institute/University of Melbourne. Professor Ho stated that the alliance will pursue “a comprehensive set of research initiatives on surveillance, diagnostics, antiviral drugs and monoclonal antibodies, viral evolution and resistance to therapeutics, antibody engineering, vaccine development and pathogenesis.” The alliance is expected to focus on respiratory viruses that can be directly transmitted person to person.

Pacific Rim

“Many emerging infectious diseases start at the Pacific Rim. It’s very important to have a cross Pacific alliance. In case another pandemic comes, we could perform much better. I do believe that the alliance can play a very important role,” Professor Yuen said.

“I feel very excited about this initiative, which will undoubtedly break new grounds in scientific research and save lives. By harnessing the combined expertise of distinguished institutions globally, we aim to create transformative solutions to protect the wellbeing of humanity,” said Professor Xiang Zhang, HKU President and Vice-Chancellor. 

Professor Ho is amongst the first scientists to discover HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) and to unravel the dynamics of this virus in infected persons. He is also the first scientist to demonstrate the efficacy of cocktail antiretroviral treatment for AIDS, now capable of achieving a near normal lifespan for a previously incurable disease.

Successful collaborations

Professors Ho and Yuen first collaborated in 2003 on the use of small molecule inhibitors and recombinant modified vaccinia virus Ankara against the SARS coronavirus.

Following his first successful collaboration with HKU’s Department of Microbiology, Professor Ho founded the AIDS Institute at HKU to conduct basic and applied research that facilitates the understanding of AIDS pathogenesis and the development of effective AIDS vaccines.

The many years of collaboration have resulted in technological breakthroughs on B and T cell immunity, leading to the discoveries of broadly neutralizing antibodies and potent vaccines against HIV. Professor Zhiwei Chen, Director of the AIDS Institute and Professor of Microbiology at HKUMed, who is a key member of the team, said that these discoveries are undergoing phase 1 or 2 clinical trials.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the HKU and Columbia research groups published eight collaborative articles on SARS-CoV-2 in leading scientific journals, including three articles in Nature, one in Immunity, and one in Science Translational Medicine. The pandemic research alliance will be built on top of this solid foundation of international collaboration.