Way forward through research– Prof. Neelika Malavige | Sunday Observer
Covid-19 pandemic

Way forward through research– Prof. Neelika Malavige

5 September, 2021
(From L to R) (1st row) Orator Prof. Neelika Malavige, Alumni President Rajeev Amarasuriya, Vice Chancellor Senior Prof. Chandrika N. Wijeyaratne,  (2nd row) Alumni Secretary Ruwandhi Thanthrige and Alumni Treasurer Janek Jayasekera
(From L to R) (1st row) Orator Prof. Neelika Malavige, Alumni President Rajeev Amarasuriya, Vice Chancellor Senior Prof. Chandrika N. Wijeyaratne, (2nd row) Alumni Secretary Ruwandhi Thanthrige and Alumni Treasurer Janek Jayasekera

Professor Neelika Malavige, the Head of the Department of Immunology and Molecular Medicine of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura delivered the 16th Annual Sujata Jayawardena Memorial Oration on Monday, August,31, 2021 Virtually on the topic “The Covid-19 Pandemic : The way forward through impactful research”.

This was the first Sujata Jayawardena Oration which was held completely virtually and was customised to fit into the new format with over one thousand participants.

The inaugural address was by Rajeev Amarasuriya, President Alumni Association, who at the outset invited the participants to observe a moment of silence in memory of all those persons who had lost their lives to the Covid-19 pandemic both in Sri Lanka and overseas.


Amarasuriya while stating that every country across the world had made mistakes in tackling the pandemic, pointed out that what was important now in a crisis like this was to take a step back, reflect on the issues, think afresh and reassess the situation. He added that it was in this context that the Alumni Association decided on the timely topic for this Oration.

This was followed by an address by the Vice Chancellor Senior Prof. Chandrika Wijeyaratne who spoke of the late Sujata Jayawardena and her contribution to the society at large.

The Vice Chancellor introduced Prof. Neelika Malavige, who is a proud Alumnus of the University of Colombo and with her many achievements and successes, and in doing so, also stated that the real measure of education was not the number of degrees, certificates or diplomas held or the number of grants, projects, orations, papers or citations one may have, but to be an intellectual who possesses the rights values, attitudes, behaviour and makes contributions to mankind, and that Prof. Malavige personified all these attributes.

The following are excerpts from the 16th Sujata Jayawardena Memorial Oration delivered by Prof. Neelika Malavige:-

“Humans have been infected by various pathogens since we first evolved from the great apes.

However, during the hunter-gatherer times, since there were very limited interactions between tribes, such infections rarely spread to other tribes.

As the human population spread across earth and with international travel, when an infection was seen in a particular area, it rapidly spread around the world causing pandemics.

There have been many pandemics that have occurred throughout the history of the world, notably the ‘black death’ seen in the 13th century and the ‘Spanish flu’ seen between 1918 to 1920. Both these pandemics killed approximately 50 million of the world population.

Although we did have several pandemics since 1920, nothing evolved to the magnitude as Covid-19, caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

This virus rapidly spread throughout the world within a few weeks, causing massive devastation to even the most developed health care systems in the world’s richest countries.

It was Europe, USA and Latin America that were very much affected by Covid-19 in 2020. Things have changed in 2021 with the emergence of the Delta variant. Many countries are currently facing a crisis situation because of this variant.

At the beginning of the pandemic there were many questions that needed to be urgently answered - such as if the virus would mutate, if variants would emerge, what caused severe disease in only some people, were there early disease markers to identify those who would develop severe disease, why do people die of Covid-19, can individuals get re-infected with the virus and the immune responses to the virus.

All scientists in the world were racing against time to find answers to these questions. There was a huge amount of collaboration between scientists and Governments to characterise the virus and drug trials and vaccine research was carried out at breakneck speed.

We too planned to carry out our studies during early February 2020, as we knew it was a matter of time before Covid-19 would reach Sri Lanka.

Prof. Graham Ogg, my PhD supervisor was here during February 2020 and we sat together and planned these studies.

Although I finished my PhD at the end of 2007, he is still my mentor and we have been collaborating on dengue research ever since then.

These collaborations with Oxford and other scientists from University of Oxford and Duke- NUS, Singapore, gave us access to many different assays and technology to use for our research, well before they were available in the market.

We had been carrying out studies on dengue for a long time with Dr. Ananda Wijewickrama and we had developed very cordial relationships with everyone at the National Institute of Infectious diseases (former IDH). Our team members would visit this hospital on a daily basis since 2014.

Other viruses

Therefore, it was natural for us to work together on Covid-19. We had been doing PCR for dengue and many other viruses when Covid-19 emerged. Therefore, we started carrying out PCRs for Covid-19 for NIID and many other hospitals at the very beginning of the outbreak and later extended our services to the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC).

With these efforts we developed very strong relationships with Dr. Dinu Guruge and Dr. Ruwan Wijayamuni at the CMC.

Due to the availability of genomic sequencing facilities before the onset of the pandemic, we were able to start genomic sequencing from the onset of the pandemic up until now, identifying variants in Sri Lanka and mutations of the virus.

During our initial studies in patients with Covid-19, we found out the kinetics and duration of antibody responses in patients with different severity of Covid-19 and markers of severe disease.

We also carried out surveillance studies to find out how many individuals were asymptomatically infected in the CMC. We then moved on to vaccination studies, initially studying immune responses to the Covishield / Astrazeneca in health care workers and later studied immune responses to vaccines such as Sinopharm.

Our studies received wide media attention, especially the Sinopharm study, which was highlighted and discussed by so many international media outlets.

All this work was possible because of the dedication of our research team, who work tirelessly day and night to do these studies.

We know that right now, Sri Lanka is in a grave situation with many deaths occurring daily, and rising case numbers and hospitals being overwhelmed.

Therefore, it is important to plan how to move forward and avoid getting into a similar situation in future. It needs to be accepted that Covid-19 is here to stay.

Therefore, we need long term strategies to live with Covid-19. Since Covid-19 is already endemic, we have to maintain sustained endemicity.

The most powerful and resourceful nations have made mistakes and the nations who were leading in controlling Covid-19 are now facing a crisis.

Therefore, there are no short-term winners or losers. We need to anticipate outbreaks and act swiftly to avoid very expensive, unnecessary lockdowns.

We need to learn from our mistakes and from mistakes others have made and be proactive and not reactive.

Recommendations regarding the best control strategies, type of restrictions, how soon to lift certain restrictions should be made by working together by a multi-disciplinary team of individuals consisting of epidemiologists, infectious disease specialists, economists, financial experts, immunologists and virologists in order to see the whole picture.

Public education

Since Covid-19 is here to stay, the only way forward is empowering the public and the community through proper public education by giving them accurate facts, health messages and education which are vital for the public to be responsible for their safety.

Vaccination is the only strategy forward and vaccine hesitancy must be addressed by public education and addressing their concerns. We need to invest on science and technology to be ready for emerging and re-emerging ‘unseen’ threats, which are the deadliest.”

The Vote of Thanks was delivered by Alumni Association Treasurer Janek Jayasekera and the Alumni Association Secretary Ruwandhi Thanthrige conducted the ceremonies.