An American man hailed as possibly the first person in China to be cured of the typically fatal disease rabies died on Saturday, reported Sixth Tone’s sister publication, The Paper, Tuesday.
The man had undergone treatment since Aug. 8 in a hospital in southern China. The CEO of genetic testing company BGI Genomics, Yin Ye, said during the China Future Economics Forum held Aug. 30 that he thought the man, whose rabies diagnosis had been confirmed by his company, could survive.
“Through our DNA sequencing technology and the hospital’s treatment, [a patient] has left the intensive care unit and is now receiving follow-up treatment,” Yin said. “This might be the first patient in China to survive rabies. I expect this miracle to happen.”
Rabies is a disease with a near-100 percent death rate that is commonly transmitted through bites from infected animals. It kills at least 50,000 people each year, the World Health Organization estimates. According to the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 95 percent of rabies cases occur in Asia and Africa.
In this case, the patient was admitted to Southern Medical University’s Shenzhen Hospital, in Guangdong province, on Aug. 8 with symptoms including mild seizures and hydrophobia — a fear of swallowing water that is common in rabies patients. The man had been scratched by a wild dog one week prior.
BGI posted an article to its public account on messaging app WeChat on Aug. 20, saying that the company had helped diagnose the patient by testing his cerebrospinal fluid. “[The hospital] made every effort but couldn’t diagnose the disease,” the article said. “In less than 24 hours, scientists at BGI completed this important task to provide the hospital with significant evidence.”
Southern Medical University’s Shenzhen Hospital told The Paper that rabies can be diagnosed based on a patient’s symptoms and medical history, and that BGI’s test results were used for reference only. According to the hospital, doctors had started treating the man for rabies before BGI confirmed the diagnosis.
Zhao Na, a senior public relations manager at BGI, told Sixth Tone on Wednesday that when CEO Yin made his speech, the patient had survived his infection for 20 days — longer than rabies patients are typically expected to live.
“That’s why we thought it was a miracle, and we thought there would be hope for his survival,” she said, adding that BGI had only helped to confirm the diagnosis, and that the hospital should be credited with providing all other measures that kept the patient alive.
The hospital also denied having released the patient from the ICU, adding that his relatives had told the hospital to cease medical treatment.
In response, a BGI employee told The Paper that treating the patient outside of the ICU was a short-lived attempt by the hospital that failed. “The speech referred to the information available at that stage,” they said.
BGI became a listed company in July, and its revenue in the first six months of 2017 reached 880 million yuan (more than $132 million). In recent years, the field of DNA sequencing has grown rapidly in China, covering everything from medical treatment research to parents having their children tested to determine their talent level.
A report by state news agency Xinhua last year warned that the lack of industry standards allows companies to overstate their findings, to the detriment of the public’s understanding of the technology.
A doctor at Beijing Jishuitan Hospital whose Weibo microblog has 786,000 followers penned an article one day after the BGI CEO’s speech, criticizing the company for exaggerating the importance of its technology. “I know that Chinese businessmen are good at bragging, but this leaves me speechless,” the doctor wrote.
Editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.
(Header image: A nurse prepares rabies vaccines for patients bitten by a wild dog in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, Nov. 18, 2010. VCG)