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早前中大及港大醫學院聯合研究發現，接種第三劑復必泰疫苗才能提供足夠抗體抵抗Omicron變異病毒株，參與研究的 #莫家斌 助理教授，研究之路原來差一點就與傳染病擦身而過。他又曾經遠赴尼日利亞駱駝屠宰場，發現當地雖然從未爆發中東呼吸綜合症（MERS），但屠宰場職員和駱駝驗血結果均顯示曾經受感染。甚麼原因令他開始研究傳染病？有甚麼驅使他尋訪各地查找傳染病蹤跡？凌晨時份在實驗室工作發生了甚麼事？
What research areas are you interested in? Why would you step into them?
I majored in Chemistry during my undergraduate years and has been involved in professor-supervised research since Year One. Initially, I wanted to pursue a career in chemical pharmacology, yet I realised afterwards there was limited possibilities locally since there wasn’t any pharmaceutical manufactoring facility in Hong Kong at that time. All was uncertain until I went to the Open Day of The University of Hong Kong (HKU) — there I met Professor Allen Lau, whose primary research area is infectious disease, from the Department of Paediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. After a round of fruitful discussion, my interest in infectious diseases was unearthed; subsequently, I attached at the Department of Microbiology to enrich my knowledge. This all happened in 2002, before Hong Kong encountered the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak. Back then, infectious disease research was mainly targeted towards Avian Flu. During my early days of research, I focused on research of H5N1 virology; nowadays, my primary research focus is on immunovirology, including the interaction between vaccines and viruses, as well as immune response in humans following viral infection.
How do zoonotic viruses and respiratory diseases fascinate you?
The study of zoonotic viruses and respiratory diseases does not solely require understanding of viruses themselves, but also their impacts on society and humans individually in the public health context.
In 2017, I visited Africa in hope of understanding why none of the locals were infected with Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). I was concerned with the situation in Africa, thinking that if there were a MERS outbreak, the aftermath would be especially tragic in view of its dense population, relatively poor healthcare quality and political instability. I remember taking blood for workers from camel slaughterhouses in Nigeria in order to study their antibody levels and immune response. Eventually, we realised that many locals working in camel-related occupations were already infected with MERS — it was just fortunate that an outbreak has not occurred. Upon identifying subclinical patients, we were able to do contact tracing to find out more about the chain of infection, eventually to prevent outbreak and minimise societal impacts. This experience highlights the importance of studying the interaction between viruses and society.
If you could eliminate an infectious disease, what would you choose?
This is a question every biologist would be asked of. In my opinion, I hope to eliminate influenza virus. Perhaps interestingly, I do not hope it will be eliminated by superpower, but by really learning how to get rid of it.
In 2003, Hong Kong experienced SARS outbreak and learnt the importance of infection control; these “lessons” has inspired our healthcare community in implementing stricter measures to suppress viral transmission, right from early days of the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak. Over the years, we have been proactively learning from mistakes to perfect our protocols for future outbreak control.
SARS-CoV, influenza, measles and smallpox all share similar routes of transmission. Therefore, if we can understand how to eliminate influenza virus, hopefully even the most bothersome SARS-CoV-2 may be eradicated. The understanding of influenza virus’ “elimination mechanism” can be seen as a way to tackle the root cause of infection and transmission, so that when new viral strands emerge in the future, the scientific community would know how to tackle it.
Could you share a quote that inspired you?
When I was still studying in university, I watched a television interview with Professor Paul Ching-Wu Chu, the then-President of The University of Science of Technology (UST). Professor Chu shared his experience as a researcher, describing research as an occupation which others pay for him to do what he loves. His words prompted me to question myself how determined I was to embark on a research career. Recalling that some of my happiest moments in life were from research, I came to realisation that my life is inseparable from research. That’s why I am still a research scientist now.
Did you encounter bottlenecks in your research/work? How did you unblock them?
As a research scientist, I encounter bottlenecks every day. I remember the time I was working in a Biological Safety Protection Third-level Laboratory (P3 Laboratory) at 4am. When test results came out negative (opposite to what we expected in the hypothesis), I was furious and disappointed. However, since both hands had to stay inside the biosafety cabinet, I could only shout to vent emotions, only to continue working after calming myself down. I would say this experience is rather representative of life as a scientist — in spite of everyday uncertainties, our job is to rebuild experimental models, sometimes for unprecedented viral targets. A recent example would be about research of the SARS-CoV-2 vaccine, which requires standardised trials to facilitate understanding of our T-cell immune response post-vaccination. Trial comes with error; indeed, the research community has been trying hard to help society overcome the outbreak. These experiences all reflect that working in a laboratory is strikingly different from studying as a thesis student. Since experimental results and conditions are not always controllable, we have to accept difficulties and face them with patience and perseverance.