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GDEST China Concept Paper

On behalf of the U.S. National Academies’ program, Global Dialogues on Emerging Science and Technology (GDEST), and the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) of the Government of the People’s Republic of China, we welcome you to the China-US Workshop on “The Genomics Revolution: New Tools for Combating Infectious Diseases” in Beijing, China on March 29-31, 2006.

In the late 1960s, the successes of vaccines and antibiotics led many to believe that infectious diseases had been conquered and were no longer a problem for humanity. We now know that this optimism was premature and that infectious diseases are here to stay. In fact, the number of new infectious diseases that humans face continues to increase—there is a huge reservoir of microbes that, under appropriate conditions, may recombine, jump species and generate new human pathogens. The acceleration and globalization of contemporary life provide a fertile environment for this to happen because accelerated changes in human behavior and ecosystems continuously disturb the equilibrium between microbes and their hosts.

Over the past decade, microbiology and infectious disease research has undergone a profound revolution through the application of genomics techniques. This revolution was heralded by the elucidation of the genetic sequence of the first bacterial genome in 1995. In less than a decade, genomics has provided the blueprints of microbes and an ability to explore the global diversity of living organisms. Today, the complete genetic codes of more than 190 bacteria, 1,600 viruses and the malaria parasite are available in public databases. This is incredible progress, considering that less than 10 years ago microbiologists spent most of their research efforts on cloning and sequencing one gene at a time.

The applications of genomics technology were dramatically illustrated during the 2003 SARS outbreak. The genome sequence of the SARS virus became available within a month after the identification of the virus, immediately enabling the development of DNA-based tests for the detection of the virus, the optimization of measures to contain its spread, the understanding of the probable animal reservoir, and the design of therapeutics, monoclonal antibodies and several effective vaccines that are moving toward clinical trials. The SARS example shows how emerging pathogens can be identified, sequenced, and classified in real time, confirming that modern technologies can be very effective in handling unknown emerging infections.

New genomic technologies have provided a quantum jump in our ability to detect, prevent and treat infectious diseases. Nevertheless, dozens of new infectious diseases are expected to emerge in the coming decades. Controlling these diseases will require a better understanding of the worldwide threat and economic burden of infectious diseases and the formulation of a global agenda.

In reflection of the growing importance of genomics and infectious disease, this joint initiative was developed out of each country’s capacity and expertise in the field as well as its relevant application in the areas of public health and national security. Most importantly, this topic advances both countries’ goals of contributing to global security, addressing human needs, and advancing scientific knowledge.

The Chinese and American workshop program committees have created a very exciting program in Beijing that brings together established experts in genomics and infectious disease and promotes the work of rising junior scientists who have already made significant contributions in the field. We are very eager to share our ideas and to learn from one another over the next three days.

Working Paper of the China–U.S. Joint Program Committee
March 29, 2006