Science and technology changes the life while innovation shapes the future. Created by Pujiang Innovation Forum, the interview series program themed the “Nth Dimension of Parallel Future” aims to demonstrate the cutting-edge research and sparks of ideas of scientific innovators, young scientists and industry leaders. In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has become a barometer of the social public health safety work. With “Opportunities and Challenges in the Post-pandemic Era” as the thematic direction, the brand-new chapter of the “Nth Dimension of Parallel Future” in 2020 has specially invited experts and scholars in different industry sectors to share their opinions about the industries, industry outlook and future development trends in the post-pandemic era from the perspective of their own professional fields.
Our guest today is Dr. Zhao Fengxian, a Chinese-American female scientist and a Researcher at Columbia University. As a native of Shanghai, she managed to invite Professor Lipkin, an internationally renowned infectious disease expert, to support the fight against SARS in Beijing 17 years ago. 17 years later, she contacted with Techt, a famous American virologist, to help China deal with COVID-19.
What is the current condition of Professor Lipkin, the American virus hunter who was unfortunately infected with COVID-19?
Will the monoclonal antibody plasma therapy be the therapy that can completely defeat COVID-19?
Is there a radical change in Americans’ awareness of protection against COVID-19?
How does the scientific research community think about the global efforts to fight against the pandemic?
Let's listen to Dr. Zhao Fengxian.
Professor Lipkin, the American “virus hunter” and a friend of China, cured himself at home after infected with COVID-19, with no sequelae for the time being. He once guided the laboratory to develop testing reagents through “remote control” despite his illness.
Zhao Fengxian: In May 2003, Professor Lipkin was the first foreign expert arriving in Beijing. He made a contribution when we had no idea about whether SARS was a bacterial infection or a viral infection. At that time, the medical community was divided into the north faction and the south faction. The Southern faction, led by Academician Zhong Nanshan, believed that SARS was a viral infection, and should be treated with antiviral drugs. On the other hand, the south faction, whether it was the CDC or some experts in Beijing, believed that SARS was a bacterial infection, and should be treated with antibiotics. That’s the time when Professor Lipkin played his role. As an authoritative expert of the third party, he thought SARS was a viral infection, and should be treated with antiviral drugs. Therefore, the decision to use antiviral treatment was made in China, and Xiaotangshan Hospital was founded. Afterwards, the SARS pandemic was brought under control. For this reason, Professor Lipkin has been recognized by the Chinese government, and awarded China International Science and Technology Cooperation Award, which was presented personally by General Secretary Xi Jinping. In the second pandemic, Professor Lipkin seemed to be the first expert again who rushed to China to help the country fight against the pandemic. After returning from China in early February, he had a 14-day self-segregation. He finished the self-segregation around February 20, and came back to the laboratory for work, with everything seeming to be normal. However, when CBC interviewed him on March 24, we learned that he was infected with COVID-19 with dramatic suddenness. He didn’t say much on the TV show, but just said that he would stay at home for segregation, and he did. He was a physician, and knew which drugs he should take. About 1 month later, he returned to Columbia University around mid-April. Now in July, he is working in the laboratory every day, with everything fine and no sequelae. I am very glad to see that. The Chinese people may just rest assured. During his illness, including his self-segregation period, almost every laboratory in Columbia University was shut down around March. However, Professor Lipkin’s laboratory kept operating 24/7, since they were working on R&D of detection reagents for COVID-19. Even though Professor Lipkin was at home, he kept “remote control” over the operation of the laboratory. The laboratory has been operating without a day off since March. Every researcher kept working. The laboratory is now under the personal direction of Professor Lipkin, and is going well.
There is a say that the monoclonal antibody plasma therapy is expected to come to the market as a radical cure for COVID-19 prior to the vaccine in September. Is that true?
Zhao Fengxian: There's not much plasma therapy used in America, so it’s hard for me to statistically say how effective the plasma therapy will be. Currently, all experts, including the experts from Columbia University, have reached a consensus. As Mr. Fauci, one of the top experts in infectious disease in the United States, said on July 17, the panel believes that the most promising antidote against COVID-19 is not a vaccine, which we shall not put too much hope on, because we might have to wait for half a year, or one year, or even longer time before getting a vaccine. The first way out for the fight against COVID-19 prior to the vaccine may be monoclonal antibody. Monoclonal antibodies are synthesized from the B cells of the patients and expand in a large amount which is larger than that of the normal blood-plasma volume, and are more professional. These are the advantages of monoclonal antibodies. Yesterday, National Institutes of Health officially announced that it has started the Phase 3 trial of its COVID-19 vaccine. The Phase 3 patients are getting vaccinated, and the results will come out soon. If the vaccine proves to be safe, I estimate that it will be available on the market in September, and can be mass-produced. Many patients will be saved in September. At present, the vaccine development is also progressing very well. Both the vaccine from the University of Oxford and the one from Wuhan Institute of Virology are very advanced adenovirus vaccines. The Phase 3 clinical trial has begun, but we shall be mentally prepared for the possibility of failure, due to the fact that many vaccines, such as the HIV vaccine, fail in Phase 3 trials. Even if no problems are found now, the vaccine will be only available at least half a year or even a year later, while monoclonal antibody may be available in a few months.
There is a radical change in Americans’ awareness of the need to wear masks to protect themselves against COVID-19.
Zhao Fengxian: When I first put on a mask in March on the underground, all the passengers there looked at me. Americans believe that if a person wears a mask, it means that he or she is sick and may infect others, so they are very afraid. Therefore, Americans are unwilling to wear masks. Their concept is completely different from ours. In the early days of the outbreak of COVID-19, in places where the Chinese gather, those who wear marks may even be beaten because they were thought to be sick. However, when the outbreak of COVID-19 hit New York, when every morgue was filled with corpses and every hospital was filled with COVID-1-infected patients, the concept of Americans started to change. In the last 2 months, I have seen 80% of the people in New York wearing marks. Notices are posted in all supermarkets and stores and on all buses, telling people to wear marks or stay outside. The governor of the state is quite decisive, stipulating that those who do not wear masks will be fined if found. I now discover that about 80% of the facilities and over 90% of the stores in New York reject the entry of people who don’t wear masks, and so does the underground. In the light of such measures, Americans have realized the importance of wearing masks, which makes major contribution to the recovery of New York from the pandemic.
At the beginning, Americans thought it doesn't matter whether they wear masks or not, and underestimated its importance at the beginning. However, I think the only weapon against the pandemic before an antidote becomes available is a mask.
Fighting against COVID-19 for the mankind, the scientists’ foresight is directed at international cooperation.
Zhao Fengxian: I think the fight against pandemics, especially the fight against COVID-19, are world wars. It will take us a fairly long time with slow progress to fight against COVID-19 alone, and I believe that the cooperation with each other, like what Professor Lipkin does, will be of great help to controlling the pandemic. I believe that the governments of different countries shall deal with the pandemic from the mankind perspective. They shall not only consider patents and intellectual properties, but consider loosening the restrictions, so as to accelerate the development of the antibody and the vaccine, and facilitate the cooperation between scientists. We shall think about the current issues instead of paying too much attention on future issues. It will be the victory of mankind as long as the vaccine is successfully developed, no matter which country makes the contribution. We scientists all have this foresight and believe that scientific research shall be conducted in partnership with each other. I think it’s like playing basketball—no matter how outstanding the pitcher is, he or she still needs a team member to pass the ball. It must be much better to cooperate with each other than to fight alone. We shall be more cooperative and negotiate more with each other, so that the vaccine and the antibody will be definitely developed. We need to put more efforts into the vaccine. Currently, the vaccine developed by Chinese Academician Chen Wei has been very successful and two phases have been completed. For the vaccine development in Phase 3, many patients are needed, but we have very few patients in China now, because the pandemic has been basically controlled, which becomes an obstacle for us. The situation in Shanghai is even better, even without an outbreak. The problem is that it’s hard for us to find a large number of patients for the Phase 3 clinical trials of drugs and vaccines, and it's hard to get the drugs to market if Phase 3 trials are not passed. For this problem, we can get help from other countries including America, Brazil and India who can provide us with a large number of patients, which may be a great cooperation. I believe it will be of great help to the mankind if this aspect is strengthened, as it will contribute a lot to the successful development of the vaccine.
Whether COVID-19 will co-exist with humans for a long time depends on its follow-up development. In any case, I greatly admire the pandemic prevention and control work of my hometown Shanghai.
Zhao Fengxian: Most people, including Professor Fauci, believe that COVID-19 will spread every year like influenza, but will not be as serious as the outbreak now. Some people raise the question that if COVID-19 becomes normal, whether it is necessary to wear a mask and keep a distance from others every day. It is indeed a problem of great concern. Personally, I think we may wear masks every day, but this may be unacceptable in summer, which is normal for humans. On the other hand, it shall be considered whether social distancing may cause mental illness, and whether avoiding contact and talk with each other may cause lack of responsiveness. These may lead to new problems. I think that returning to normal doesn’t mean that we need to maintain social distance forever. However, what if COVID-19 becomes as normal as influenza? In the past, we wear masks in winter, which is a seasonal action. Now the outbreak of the virus happens in the hot summer, which breaks the past experience. I don’t know whether we are prepared to wear masks and keep distance from others forever. I’m optimistic that COVID-19 may not become as common as influenza. Maybe we will not need wear masks or keep a distance 2 years later. However, whether this will come true depends on the final situation, and no accurate judgment can be made for now. In terms of pandemic trends, San Francisco and Los Angeles are suffering from the pandemic now, but the situation will be mitigated after a period of time. However, zero case will not be achieved easily, and sporadic cases will remain. Although there are some sporadic cases in Xinjiang and Beijing's Xinfadi Wholesale Market, I think that the quantity of the cases in China is basically a fraction of that in America right now and there is no need to be too worried. Shanghai really has done a great job. While Shanghai is a very typical metropolis which basically has the same people flow and activity level as New York, it had neither an outbreak of SARS nor an actual outbreak of COVID-19, to my surprise greatly. Every scientist shall ask whether the virus’ entry into Shanghai is blocked by the measures of wearing masks and keeping distance. If the answer is yes, we shall monitor whether the measures can block the second and subsequent outbreaks in the city. For the time being, we really admire Shanghai, my hometown.
I hope that the world can return to normal as soon as possible as my hometown Shanghai does.
Zhao Fengxian: At present, all cancer surgeries are suspended for the fight against COVID-19. We have many patients and research subjects now, so it is urgent to get back to normal as soon as possible and reopen the specialist departments. Our ophthalmologists and oncologists are treating COVID-19 now; the general clinics have been closed for 3–4 months, and need to be opened right now. Now I gain confidence each time when I look at the example of my hometown Shanghai. I hope that other regions may return to normal as soon as possible as Shanghai does, so that the whole world may find peace.
Shanghai really had a hard time. While Shanghai is a very typical metropolis which basically has the same people flow and activity level as New York, it didn’t experience the outbreak of SARS, and also didn't really experience the outbreak of COVID-19, which is a great achievement. For the time being, we really admire Shanghai, and keep considering the success of Shanghai. Shanghai’s experience will become a model for the whole world.