Sunday, February 26, 2017


Dr Chua Kaw Beng had discovered the Nipah virus whilst it was still in the midst of the outbreak here that eventually killed 105 people and led to the culling of over a million pigs. — AFP picKUALA LUMPUR, Feb 27 — Dr Chua Kaw Beng is one of the most unassuming people you will ever see, but he is the man that possibly rescued Malaysia from one of the most virulent viruses known to man: the Nipah virus.
Today, the Nipah virus is well known, having been the inspiration for the 2011 movie Contagion, but in 1999, when it had been confused for Japanese encephalitis (JE), Dr Chua broke all manner of rules in order to prove his discovery.
In an interview with US media outlet NPR, Dr Chua recounted how, when he was still a virologist in training, he had discovered the Nipah virus whilst it was still in the midst of the outbreak here that eventually killed 105 people and led to the culling of over a million pigs.
He made the chilling discovery in the lab of Universiti Malaya (UM) where he was still studying, but was ignored by his professors when he brought his findings to them.
Local authorities had also not given the outbreak their full attention, then believing it was another JE incident with mosquitoes as the vector.
Dr Chua and Dr Tan Chong Tin, a neurologist also based at UM, noticed then that the disease was entirely absent from the Muslim population, but was ravaging Nipah, the home of many of the country's pig farms and where one in three families eventually lost someone to the virus,
“No, no I knew it was something else, and people were dying!” Dr Chua told NPR in the interview published on Saturday. “But no one would believe me.”
Dr Chua then decided to sneak samples of the virus into the Centers for Disease Control in the US, under the pretext of studying mosquito-borne diseases. He sealed the virus in his suitcase and carried it by hand on the flight to and into the CDC.
There, he would have access to the CDC's powerful microscopes that would allow him to clearly study the virus, but how he brought the samples into the centre broke many of its safety and quarantine procedures.
“It was an emergency… I had to get the samples there very quickly,” he explained.
As risky as the move was, it allowed Dr Chua to identify the virus as paramyxol, the virus family that contains both the Hendra virus and what would later be called Nipah, after the area that it most ravaged.
The discovery and later corroboration by other scientists at the CDC were crucial in convincing the Malaysian government then that the outbreak was not JE, prompting it to deploy the military in a massive culling operation that killed over a million swines.
It was discovered a decade later that the pigs had been infected by bats, and the clustered nature of farms then had made them what Dr Tan described as a “virus factory”.
The outbreak led to a complete overhaul of Malaysia's pig farming industry.
Dr Chua has since left the country for the Temasek Lifesciences Laboratory in Singapore, where he is senior principal investigator.
Dr Tan remains attached to UM as a neurologist.
Both men were part of the UM investigative team that was conferred such prizes as the Merdeka Award and the Mahathir Science Award for their efforts in discovering the Nipah virus.
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