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Cheng Gong: From Infectious Diseases in History to the Prevalence of COVID-19

Time: 2020-03-10 09:45 Print

On the morning of March 7, 2020, Tsinghua PBCSF Online Executive Education held its first lecture in March. Cheng Gong, Professor and Principal Investigator of the School of Medicine, Tsinghua University, presided over the lecture “Review: From Infectious Diseases in History to the Prevalence of COVID-19”. Prof. Cheng is also a lecturer for the “Healthy China - Industry Leader” program jointly established by PBCSF and the School of Medicine, Tsinghua University.


Since the start of 2020, COVID-19 swept across the whole country. With the concerted efforts of brave healthcare staff at frontline, scientific researchers trying to come up with a vaccine and people across the country staying in self-quarantine, so far the epidemic has been basically contained. However, the epidemic fully exposed the public’s lack of rudimentary knowledge about epidemic control and prevention. Prof. Cheng introduced a valuable lesson on how to recognize viruses in a scientific way and how to prevent and control epidemic disease.

“Viruses are the simplest living body on earth, which cannot exist independently. They must live and reproduce through hosts to complete their lifecycle. Almost all the living things on earth correspond to certain viruses,” Prof. Cheng began with the basic knowledge about viruses and their origins.

Then he introduced some deadly infective diseases in chronological order in human history. “Viruses are ubiquitous in our life and we contact with them at all times. The history of the mankind reflects our struggles against deadly infective diseases and viruses,” he said. Smallpox, yellow fever and the Spanish flu pandemic once caused large-scale transmission and prevalence. “Only by drawing lessons from history and looking back at what once happened can we know how to respond now.”

Professor Cheng also made detailed and scientific explanations for how “COVID-19”, the chief culprit for this pandemic outbreak, originated and how it is related to the SARS virus that went viral 17 years ago, among other issues we were concerned about. He expressed that mankind’s understanding of coronavirus is an ever-changing and deepening process. When first discovered in 1937, it was only seen as an animal virus at the very beginning, and then as a general virus that would only cause respiratory tract infections with mild symptoms in humans. It was until the outbreak of the SARS epidemic in 2003 that the virus attracted widespread attention of the science community.

He added, COVID-19 shares a relatively high homology with two known human coronaviruses (SARS and MERS), all of which have a bat origin. And it is 96% homologous with the CoV genome discovered in wild Chinese horseshoe bats in Yunnan. But why are the origins of viruses always related to bats? Because bats are the natural reservoir of viruses for human beings. It is universally accepted in the science community to trace the source of viral infections to bats when they emerge. However, he stressed, the coronaviruses carried by bats cannot be directly communicated to humans; instead, they must need one or more intermediate hosts and go through further mutations before they can become infectious to people. Therefore, it is essential to cut off the path of transmission from bats to humans to avoid another outbreak before we can be really safe. What the intermediate host(s) is (are) is the very key scientific issue to make clear.

Prof. Cheng also offered suggestions on how people should treat viruses and properly protect themselves. Our body comes in contact with viruses every day and human body has quite strong immunity, in addition to vaccines and other external methods. In the future, we will still encounter the threats posed by various kinds of viruses. So it is fundamentally key to developing healthy lifestyles, cultivating hygiene awareness and paying attention to personal hygiene-related behaviors.

As an important part of the public-interest online learning program launched by Tsinghua PBCSF Executive Education, the Online Executive Education encompasses six modules, namely macro outlook, industry response, management practice, financial trends, new scientific knowledge, and health management. The online learning program also includes online learning packages that integrate Tsinghua University’s educational resources and provide online learning resources on the three major themes of macro, finance and scientific innovation. In addition, exclusive learning resources are available to Tsinghua PBCSF alumni, including exclusive lectures, reading sessions, sharing sessions and internal learning materials. Four sessions have been held so far, with the number of online participants exceeding 2.8 million people. Previous lectures can be viewed via the WeChat official account of the center.