Prof. Joseph Sriyal Malik Peiris is an intellectual of many facets. He is one of those intellectuals who have done Sri Lanka proud. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of London, a Knight of the Legion of Honour (France) and a Member of the United States (US) National Academy of Sciences. As a scientist, his research work was instrumental in the discovery that a coronavirus was the cause of the deadly, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).

He is a Chair in Virology, Professor at the Department of Microbiology of the Faculty of Medicine, Tam Wah-Ching, Professor of Medical Sciences and Director of the School of Public Health of the University of Hong Kong. Prof. Joseph Sriyal Malik Peiris is also the Scientific Director of the Hong Kong University-Pasteur Research Centre and Co-Director of the World Health Organization H5 Reference Laboratory.

A product of St. Anthony’s College, Kandy, and the University of Peradeniya, Prof. Peiris spoke to the Nation regarding the epidemic of fatal, dengue and Influenza A virus subtype H1N1, in Sri Lanka, the role of education in breeding questioneres and a scientific mindset and the minimal impact of basic and applied research on public policymaking.

Given below here are a few excerpts of the  interview.
Q: Local researchers and scientists face insurmountable odds when it comes to sourcing facilities and finding funding. They face intellectual property and patenting related issues as well. What are your observations in this regard?

Funding for research is clearly important, facilities too. There were few such provisions when I was working in Sri Lanka from 1974 to 1988.

It was tough, yet one could make progress. One can develop one’s own facilities. One does not necessarily need to have the most expensive equipment. There are other ways of tackling problems. All that is required is a different approach.

There is more than one way to do something. Of course, the work is three times as hard. This is because one is working against headwind. There is however a sense of achievement. This is however not an attempt to minimize the challenges faced by researchers. Apart from research done by individuals, there are good collaborations.

Q: What changes do you propose in relation to these matters?

First and foremost, a recognition that research is important is essential. This is the case with work done by juniors and seniors. Some believe that we can solely rely on research done elsewhere, especially in rich countries, and therefore that we need not do research in Sri Lanka. Every region has its own unique problems.

Chronic kidney disease of unknown etiology is a classic example. We must therefore undertake systematic investigations to ascertain what something does, what are the reasons for it, and what interventions can be made. Developing a research culture and research mentality is of paramount importance.

I am worried about certain types of education, which include passing examinations, tuition culture, the pure learning of facts and not learning a sense of questioning. One should not take something simply because someone tells one to, without raising concerns.
One should think about such in one’s own mind and discuss such with evidence for the purpose of supporting a certain premise or position, or for refuting an argument. Young children possess curiosity.

The most important aspect of education is not learning facts but learning to learn oneself. Each must learn to learn by themselves. Knowledge is evolving. What one learns in school or at university is not what one uses when one is employed in a profession. One has to find out knowledge in a systematic way. Nothing is more important than this.

Q: How can this be practically achieved?

The research culture and research mindset must be developed and fostered. This however is not rewarded in the whole exam system including at the high school level and also at the level of the university system. Research is being done in spite of the system and not because of it.

In the 1960s, during my General Certificate of Education Advanced Level classes, we discussed many things. The questioning culture was developed. This allowed one to go in the direction of research.

Q: How do you think research should be recognized?

Research in Sri Lanka is not rewarded. Rewards remain an issue. One is working against difficult odds. Plus, this is not a money earning exercise. This is a difficult area to foster and support. Only those with understanding and sensitivity at all levels, especially at the highest levels, can look at testing research in policy.

Q: The impact of research on policymaking seems to be minimal, a fact which becomes evident from even a cursory reading of new legislation and policies. Where is the problem and what can be done to address it?   

There are different types of research. There is very basic research, which is curiosity driven and not aimed at tackling a particular problem. This kind of research has policy implications. Then there are major solutions to practical problems. Innovations are found through basic research. Applied research concerns particular problems. Information is used by policymakers. There is good information and research.

There are challenges. Globally, there are policymakers who deny science and research. The science of climate change has come into question. The US department of environment has had budget cuts. There are policymakers who believe without evidence or research findings.

Research findings are thrown aside. This is the result of pre-existing beliefs. They believe what they want to believe. It is very disappointing to see what is taking place in this regard in certain parts of the world. Scientific values must be inculcated into everybody.
This matters in all decisions pertaining to life, one’s own and of others. It matters when trying to frame questions dispassionately, instead of looking at what one likes to believe. It is very important to strengthen the scientific approach in communities in general.

Q: Dengue is sweeping through the country at present. From a virology standpoint, what is new about this latest outbreak?

As far as the local situation is concerned, there are four types of the dengue virus (type 1, type 2, type 3 and type 4). The virus is brought from outside and time to time the type changes, with the previous one being replaced. At present, the type 2 one is the cause of the epidemic. It has not been in the country for 10 to 12 years. When one gets infected by one type one builds immunity to only that type.

One can get reinfected by another type as one does not have inbuilt immunity against the said other type. To make matters worse, not only does one not have immunity but one also contracts a more severe disease with one developing dengue hemorrhagic fever and the dengue shock syndrome. Thus, dengue is reintroduced.

Q: Anything that can be done to address the situation aside from the obvious precautions and treatments?

Low immunity in members of the population facilitates the spread of the virus. The other factor is the spread of dengue mosquitoes. The spread of mosquitoes must be controlled.
Basic measures with regard to the control of mosquitoes involves understanding that we are creating more and more man-made mosquito breeding containers and plastic bags, and throwing them about, which makes ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes.

The second part is that there must be early diagnosis and the proper treatment of patients. The virus itself does not have a specific drug for treatment. With dengue, there must be good management of patients such as maintaining fluid balance.

There is a vaccine licensed in some countries but its effectiveness is limited when pinned against certain types of the dengue virus, in particular the type 2 dengue virus. Newer vaccines are being developed.