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Former Pitt Fellow Puts Leadership Skills to Use in Fight Against Coronavirus


A depiction of the coronavirus

In the Zhongnan Hospital of Wuhan University in China, Zhiyong Peng is working tensely as his country is facing the fast-spreading coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) outbreak.

“I’ve spent almost all my time here at the hospital,” said Peng, who heads the hospital’s department of critical care medicine and is a former fellow at the University of Pittsburgh. “We’re seeing a total number of cases reaching 28,000 and about half of the patients are from Wuhan. And it looks like we have some time before we reach the peak.”


Zhiyong Peng

The outbreak began in early December 2019 in Wuhan, a city in the Chinese province of Hubei. Those infected show symptoms such as coughing, fever and shortness of breath, with extreme cases causing pneumonia. Like the flu, children and the elderly are the most at-risk for extreme symptoms. Medical staff at Zhongnan Hospital have treated patients to relieve these symptoms while their immune systems fight off the virus.

While Peng is seasoned in critical care medicine, part of his current management of this crisis can in part be attributed to his time at Pitt. Peng spent about nine years in the Department of Critical Care Medicine at Pitt from 2006 to 2014, researching complications from acute kidney injury and severe infections such as sepsis.

“My time at Pitt was very valuable. All my work in researching sepsis and its pathophysiology as well as the standard clinical training I received has helped further inform me for best clinical practices,” said Peng. “I learned a lot from fellow faculty members for these situations, including how to manage teams and be a leader. This team in Wuhan has gotten bigger and stronger to fight this particular disease.”

“He really ran the sepsis laboratory; it was my lab, but we worked closely together and I trusted him to run it,” said John Kellum, Endowed Chair in Critical Care Research in Pitt’s Department of Critical Care. 

Peng has been busy treating patients affected by this epidemic, which has led to the U.S. Department of State issuing a do-not-travel advisory for China and the World Health Organization classifying the outbreak as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

“I receive a lot of phone calls for advice on dealing with this outbreak and what people can do to protect themselves,” he said.

This latest outbreak has drawn comparisons to other coronavirus outbreaks in the 21st  century, like the 2003 SARS outbreak in China and the 2015 MERS outbreak in South Korea. However, Peng says while this latest one has spread faster than the SARS outbreak, most cases are milder.

“I’m confident though that in maybe a month, we can really sort out this problem, especially if we get a lot of support from the world,” he said. “Everyone around the world is watching this outbreak.”


The skyline of Wuhan, China

People can take precautions against spreading coronavirus, including frequent hand washing, covering the nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing, avoiding sharing cups, utensils and other items, and staying home when sick.

“For the vast majority of us, even if we were to contract this illness, it’s not going to kill most of us,” Kellum said. Like other viral illnesses including influenza, most fatalities will occur in the very old and very young and those with immune deficiency due to chronic illness or medication. 

As Peng continues his vital work in Wuhan, officials at Pitt are monitoring the situation closely in collaboration with local public health officials. While there have been no cases to date in Pennsylvania, the University has been providing community members with the latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and U.S. Department of State, and helping support those who have been impacted by travel restrictions or concerns about family and friends in affected areas. For the latest information visit Pitt’s Office of Public Safety & Emergency Management.