'The illness struck the little baby suddenly.
It was a hot, sticky day late in the summer of 2017. Only 5 months old at the
time, her little boy was a peaceful infant, his mother recalls. "He didn't make
much of a fuss."
The family lives in a small fishing town near the South China Sea in Sarawak,
Malaysia, at the mouth of the Rajang River. Their tidy home sits atop stilts,
above a maze of canals and families' rowboats tied to piers.
She has six children now; the baby was her fifth. We aren't using their names
to protect the family from stigma around the son's illness.
On that humid August day, something was terribly wrong with her child. First,
he became feverish. The mother thought he might have the flu or a cold. "The
fever went away quickly," she says. But by evening, the child began coughing
and struggled to catch his breath. "He was breathing very fast," she remembers.
She took the baby to the nearest clinic, but his condition deteriorated.
Doctors rushed them to the nearest city, Sibu. It's three hours away by
ambulance, depending on how the ferries are running.
At the hospital, doctors admitted the infant to the intensive care unit. By
then, the baby's lungs had begun to fail. They were filled with mucus. He
couldn't absorb enough oxygen, his mother says, and doctors connected him to a
machine to help him breathe.
For three long days, the child didn't get better. His mother worried for his
life. "I was so concerned," she says.
He had pneumonia. "But doctors didn't know why," she says. They ran tests
looking for a cause — a bacterium or virus. All the tests for the usual
culprits came back negative.
But one pediatrician at the hospital had the foresight to know that scientists
might one day have the tools to figure out the cause of the child's
life-threatening pneumonia and that perhaps he had a pathogen that no one had
detected before. "We are looking for novel infections, even types of viruses
that we might not be aware of," says Dr. Teck-Hock Toh, who teaches at SEGi
University and heads the Clinical Research Centre at Sibu Hospital.
Toh's team took a little white swab, like the ones in COVID-19 testing kits,
and scraped inside the infant's nose. They took the sample to the laboratory,
extracted the genetic material from the possible pathogens present and stored
the sample in a freezer. In 2016 and 2017, Toh and his team collected about 600
samples like this one.'
Via Kenny Chaffin.
*** Xanni ***
Chief Scientist, Xanadu
Partner, Glass Wings
Manager, Serious Cybernetics