Waking the Ghost of SARS: Emergence of a New Virus in China


Early this January, reports emerged from China of several cases of a new SARS-like Coronavirus.

SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) is a virus from the Coronaviridae family, which caused two infectious outbreaks in 2003 and 2004. The pandemics started in China and rapidly spread over Asia to reach 37 countries. People infected with SARS presented severe pneumonia symptoms that could lead to mortality.

Although SARS has not been detected globally since the end of the second outbreak in 2004, another type of viral lung inflammation has emerged in Wuhan, China, since December 2019. Similarly to SARS, the virus is suspected to be a mutated strain of small-mammal-borne coronavirus transmissible to humans. Approximately 40 cases were reported and the people infected had been in direct contact with potential vectors at animal markets. Although so far, the only fatality caused by this new virus was an elderly man already afflicted by chronic illness, and the infectious agent has not been seen to be easily transmissible between humans, the fear of a global health crisis identical to SARS was quickly awakened. Between 2003 and 2004, SARS killed about ten percent of the people it infected, and claimed 774 lives.

So, no wonder the international community and infectious disease researchers were perplexed by the news coming out in the 8 December issue of the Wall Street Journal, rather from an official Chinese Government statement. Concerns about a will from Chinese officials to keep “critical public health information” (Jeremy Farrar, head of the London Wellcome Trust) to have a greater impact through a highly ranked journal have been expressed. The geographical origin of an emerging disease is often a sensitive subject, with politics intertwining with information and research strategies. International cooperation should however be a given, especially in our modern days where pathological agents may travel as easily as humans, animals and knowledge around this globalised planet. Withdrawal of official statements on emerging diseases may impair any head starts research desperately needs on infectious diseases.

Fortunately, this only seems to have been a communication mishap, and WHO has expressed its reassurance on ‘the quality of the ongoing investigations and the response measures implemented in Wuhan, and the commitment to share information regularly.

For the sake of global public health, let us hope rapid detection, identification and cooperative responses to infectious diseases will keep on this positive path.


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