Peiris is a Sri Lankan virologist working in Hong Kong and one of 12 scientists who led the Lancet probe into the origins of the disease. The task force is no longer listed on the medical journal's website as it was forced to disband due to extensive conflicts of interest with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, although archived web pages reveal the participation of Peiris.
Following his work with the task force, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) awarded Peiris with a prize in life science during the 2021 Future Science Prize – also known as China's own version of the Nobel Prize. The award comes with a hefty sum of $1 million funded by several CCP-linked companies, such as Baidu, Hillhouse Capital and Sequoia Capital China.
A state-run media outlet claimed that the award, which he shared with co-author Kwok-Yung Yuen, was for his "major discoveries of SARS-CoV-1 as the causative agent of the global SARS outbreak in 2003 with impact on combating COVID-19 and emerging infectious diseases." (Related: Chinese authorities hid the fact that medical staff in coronavirus-hit city were infected.)
During the SARS outbreak in 2003, Peiris, Yuen and their team treated the first patients in Hong Kong and isolated the SARS-CoV-1 from their clinical specimens, which became critical to the design of diagnostic tests and disease characterization. In addition, Yuen's continued studies on SARS-like viruses in wild bats increased the knowledge of zoonotic reservoirs, barriers to cross-species transmission, pathogenesis and clinical diagnosis of the diseases.
Peiris' research was praised by reviewers for playing an integral role in tracing the origins of COVID-19, saying that Chinese scientists were able to identify the cause of the pandemic quickly because of his contributions. The research particularly bolstered the CCP's narrative that COVID-19 developed naturally as opposed to having been leaked or escaped from a lab.
As the media outlet explained, Peiris' research helped support the narrative that SARS-CoV-2 originated from bats.
When asked how their discoveries affected people's understanding of the cause of COVID-19, Yuen explained that since he and his team discovered in 2005 the horseshoe bat being a natural animal reservoir for the ancestral SARS-CoV-1, they believe that the SARS-CoV-2 "also went from bats to another mammal before jumping into humans."
Moreover, their studies have shown that SARS-CoV-2 replicates very well in both bat and human intestinal organs, which further supports the theory of the SARS-CoV-2 beginnings.
However, there are also major differences between the two diseases, especially in terms of severity, asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic rates and the ability to suppress interferon and inflammatory responses.
As scientists call for the second phase of its origins, Chinese experts have suggested conducting investigations in countries where horseshoe bats and pangolins reside.
Jin Dongyan, a professor at the School of Biomedical Sciences at Hong Kong University, said that Peiris, Yuen and their research team were very valuable to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.
"From SARS to COVID-19, the team has been engaged in coronavirus-related basic studies while combing through clinical studies. That working mode contributes the outstanding work of the university to the study of infectious diseases," he said.
There had been 20 winners of the Future Science Prize in the last five years, all of whom have been widely recognized in the scientific circle and society. The late Yuan Longping, also known as "the father of hybrid rice," was awarded the prize in 2018 "for pioneering the use of hybrid vigor to achieve higher yield and increased stress resistance in rice."
Get more news and updates on the development of COVID-19 at Pandemic.news.