Two Weeks into Viet Nam Life

I’m two weeks into life in Ho Chi Minh City, Viet Nam. The food, as previously assured by friends who have visited in earlier times, is scrumptious. The heat – just what the Doctor ordered. The air leaves a lot wanting here, if I am honest, but its a big city. What else to expect?

The reason for my touchdown in Viet Nam? I’ve been sent on a mission by LSHTM, the same mission every LSHTM Masters student is currently embarking on, in equally diverse and exciting parts of the World. I’m here to tackle my MSc Project. This counts for 30% of the degree. There’s no doubt – it’s a biggie!

The Oxford University Clinical Research Unit (OUCRU), Ho Chi Minh City, has been kind enough to host my project – and what an atmosphere! A conglomeration of tropical disease experts, epidemiologists, inspired scientists and aspiring students from BSc right through to PhD, all have their integral part to play in the success of OUCRU. To give a sense of the people we’re dealing with here – The director of OUCRU is currently preparing to take over as Director of The Wellcome Trust, in London, UK. That’s arguably the biggest funding body for Medical Research in the UK.  I was fortunate to share a lunch banquet with him and shake his hand. It was only brief but the calm eyes and assured smile said it all – at least to me – Great guy.

Elisabeth Pisani is another OUCRU resident. She wrote a book recently titled “The Wisdom of Whores”. I’ve not read it but I know one very special person in my life who has and well…. the reviews are much in line with The Guardian’s take on it.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/jul/04/wisdom-of-whores-elizabeth-pisani?INTCMP=SRCH

I’m also fortunate to be mentored by a Heavyweight in the world of science. Dr Juliet Bryant specialises in zoonotic diseases; getting to the bottom of why pathogens in animals cross over into humans and cause disease. We’ve heard about Influenza a lot over the years, H1N1 (swine flu), H5N1 and the recent emergence of H7N9 in China just earlier this year. Influenza has been a mainstay of Dr Bryant’s work.

But do you remember SARS? The disease which emerged in 2002, infected over 8,000 people in 32 countries and had taken the lives of 774 people by July 5th 2003, when it was declared by the World Health Organisation as ‘contained’. You’ve surely heard about MERS, or ‘Middle East Respiratory Syndrome’, which was first identified in a Saudi Arabian man towards the end of 2012 and has gone on to infect at least 64 people and take the lives of 38 to date….no? Well, these diseases are caused by a type of virus called Coronavirus. What IS interesting, is that every indication we currently have on the origin of these viruses, which have caused (and still do) major public health challenges, points towards Bats as the source.

This is what makes the outcomes of my project all the more important. Dr Bryant has recently developed an interest in seeking out what coronaviruses are out there in Vietnamese bat populations (among other viruses). The real excitement comes from the fact that this has NEVER been done before in Viet Nam. There are no publications (at the time of me writing this) declaring the identification of a coronavirus in bats in Viet Nam. There’s tonnes in China, some in Philippines, Thailand and Japan….and even some studies from Mexico. But Viet Nam – not a sausage.

Yet.

This the excitement of ‘pathogen discovery’ orientated science. The hypothesis: “Coronaviruses are present within bat populations in Viet Nam”.

And why?

Because bats appear important in the evolutionary and ecological history of coronaviruses, according to numerous studies. On top of this – virus hunting in bat populations of other countries has often proved fruitful.

I will discuss more about the specifics of my project (the hard-nut science stuff) in a later post, but for now I’ll just outline 3 reasons why this kind of research is of importance to us all (and there’s a bunch of studies to back up my claims….which I’ll happily point you towards)

1. We will get a clearer understanding of coronavirus circulation within bat populations of Viet Nam. Moreover, we may find a previously unidentified coronavirus.

2. Our findings are likely to help build a picture of the potential for zoonotic transmission and understanding drivers for disease emergence (not just of coronaviruses).

3. Viet Nam has suffered heavily from deforestation over the years, affecting bat habitats. Bats are beautiful creatures and are integral to ecological maintenance. A number of studies world over have identified correlations with wildlife habitat loss / disruption and disease emergence. Our findings will add to what is known about the correlations with habitat status and viral zoonoses in Viet Nam.

….So it’s labs daily for me. Tomorrow there’s an academic meeting with an expert in Bat Viruses at OUCRU. Plenty to get excited about. It feels as if I’m continuously blessed as I add to my incredible experiences in Viet Nam. I’ll be posting more about life at OUCRU, Vietnam and Tropical Disease in general.

A shout out to all my LSHTM student colleagues – I hope you are well wherever you are, and you are enjoying your projects too. All the best!

Phil

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