News & Events

19 Feb 2020

Fudan Character

Academician Wen Yumei: Science is a critical weapon against COVID-19

By Yan Chengyi

Wen Yumei, Professor, School of Basic Medical Sciences, Fudan University

With the expertise and experience in molecular virology of HBV and immunology, Academician Wen Yumei is one of the scientists who have contributed to this strenuous fight against COVID-19. Wen furthered her study in the U.K. and the U.S. after graduating from then Shanghai No.1 Medical College, and has published more than 200 papers and 6 monographs over the years. In 1999, Wen was elected a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering. 

As an educator, Wen has been awarded with several titles for her excellence in teaching in the past six decades. Aspiring to explore new forms of medical education, Wen is the chief editor of many classic textbooks. She also launched the online course Humanities and Medical Science where reputable scholars of humanities, science, medicine and management are invited to teach so as to better students’ understanding of the doctor-patient relationship. By now, 15,000 students from over 400 universities nationwide have completed the course. 

To promote creative teaching, research and training, Wen and her husband set up a special fund with 1.5 million yuan ($214,800) in support of medical education in China. What’s more, she always encourages her students to attend and address international academic conferences and participate in voluntary work to broaden their vision. Many of her students have now grown into the leading experts capable to undertake a variety of tasks at different important positions.

In the article published in People’s Daily on Feb. 11, Wen calls on her compatriots to utilize science as the very weapon to win this tough battle against COVID-19.

The following translation is based on an abridged version of the article. 

Pathogens (bacteria, viruses, parasites, etc.) have always been a potential threat to the survival and development of human beings. For instance, smallpox, as one of the deadliest plague, has been infecting humans since ancient times. Scars left by smallpox sores (pustules) were found in 3000-year-old mummies of Egyptian pharaohs. Smallpox was also the biggest killer in Europe in the 18th century, taking around 400,000 lives each year. In the second half of the 18th Century, the British scientist Edward Jenner noticed that milkmaids who had suffered from cowpox were immune to smallpox. In 1796, Jenner finally proved the efficacy of cowpox vaccination in smallpox prevention and the World Health Organization announced in 1980 that the world was finally free of smallpox, making it the world’s first eradicated disease.

Although vaccines can help prevent infectious diseases, pathogen-induced outbreaks have still been continuously affecting human beings. The H1N1 pandemic at the beginning of 20th century killed at least 20 million people. It was eventually brought under control even though there was no effective vaccine at that time. SARS, without effective vaccine neither, faced the same situation 17 years ago, but it was curbed via the isolation of patients and termination of wild animal trade. Other infectious diseases like West Nile virus and Zika virus that swept across the U.S. and South America respectively have also been controlled. In recent years, there is a growing number of zoonoses (infectious diseases that spread from animals to humans) due to globalization and frequent contact between humans and animals. However, outbreaks can be controlled as long as people respond with scientific measures. 

Numerous examples have proved science’s critical role in the ongoing fight against pathogens. The invention of electron microscopes has extended humans’ vision to the nanometer level. The development of cryo-electron microscopy has enabled closer observation of enzymes and receptors associated with viruses. Tissue culture technology helps to demonstrate the biological activities of viruses in living cells, which made the separation of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in Wuhan possible. 

Without this technology, scientists could not find the cure to specific viruses. The heat-resistant DNA replication enzymes separated from the hot springs in Yellowstone National Park are used in nucleic acid-based viral detection to accelerate diagnosis. Last but not least, now new vaccines can be created through genetic engineering. All these examples serve as the proof that science is irreplaceable in disease control.

Science will continue to be a powerful weapon against viruses in the future. Competition among different species is inevitable. Diseases caused by pathogens will continue to emerge and evolve with the changing time and circumstances. Disease control will be an everlasting challenge to humans and effective prevention will not be possible without science to reveal how viruses spread. Despite the temporary lack of vaccine for the novel coronavirus, examination, isolation and prevention are critical in the disease control and many patients have recovered thanks to appropriate treatment. With strong faith, concerted efforts and above all, science, we are confident in the final victory over the epidemic. 

  Editor: Deng Jianguo, Wang Mengqi, Li Yijie


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