Remember that time in about 2002 when there was an outbreak of a severe coughing disease that seemed to come out of nowhere? It caught the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) by such surprise that it ended up being this nutty shock to the worldwide system. Obviously, it wasn’t an apocalyptic event, and nowhere near as bad as the 2013-2016 Ebola outbreak. That one had an estimated 28,000+ cases and 11,000+ deaths–with the caveat that up to 70% of cases were likely unreported. But the outbreak in West Africa probably deserves its own post. So what was SARS, and why might it be becoming relevant again?
What Is SARS?
Honestly, SARS is a bit of a “was,” since no significant cases have cropped up since around 2003, with none period since 2004. But that doesn’t mean the disease is no longer relevant.
If you haven’t already guessed from all the letters being in caps, SARS is an acronym. It stands for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. While yes, SARS is a condition and not a nasty viral bugger, it is caused by the SARS-CoV. The SARS part remains the same, the CoV refers to coronavirus. Generally, these little scrubs cause symptoms related to the throat and your ability to breathe. You know, sore throats and coughs and whatnot.
SARS was no different, with initial symptoms presenting very flu like. You know, sore throats, high fevers, coughs, and muscle pains. Though the 100 degree Fahrenheit fever was the best constant.
Eventually the symptoms would evolve (devolve?) into pneumonia and shortness of breath. That’s basically getting unwanted crap in your lungs. So yeah, you can kind of see why SARS was a bit of a medical concern.
SARS was also pretty infectious, transmitting itself through objects contaminated with infected material, and even the air.
Since SARS was caused by a virus, as we mentioned earlier, antibiotics didn’t work. At all. So combinations of things like external oxygen supplies, antiviral medications, and steroids (to reduce lung swelling) were used. We’re not doctors here so we’re not going to pretend to know every possible way to treat SARS.
So maybe there’s a vaccine? Well after doing some digging and browsing research papers, it appears that humanity has been hard at work trying to find a vaccine against SARS-CoV. Doesn’t seem like we’re there yet.
Why Was SARS so Bad?
SARS did not end up claiming as many lives as the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, though the numbers seem a little inconsistent. Many numbers hover over 8,500 total infected and 800 fatalities.
What made SARS so nasty was how infectious it was, beginning in Guangdong, China in November 2002, which borders Hong Kong. Despite the danger presented by SARS, the Chinese government kept the press from reporting on the outbreak in Guangdong. At the same time, they didn’t report anything to the WHO–going so far as preventing WHO officials from visiting Guangdong.
However, SARS would explode in early 2003 when it arrived in Hong Kong. A doctor had traveled from treating patients in Guangdong, having been afflicted with the condition. Checking into a hotel on the 21st, they ended up spreading the SARS virus to a lot of people. Somewhat ironically, it’s been said they had checked into room 911. By the 22nd, he had become ill enough to seek treatment at a hospital, dying in early March. A (possibly striking) 80% of SARS cases in Hong Kong can be attributed to just this doctor. That should give you an idea of how infectious it can get–as well as how densely populated Hong Kong is.
SARS would, from the transportation center Hong Kong, quickly make its way to Vietnam, Canada, and Taiwan before the onset of March.
The WHO Gets Involved
In mid-March, the WHO would get involved, releasing the first global alert for SARS, citing its origins as Vietnam and Hong Kong.
As drama with China escalated, the WHO would continue advising people against travelling to affected countries. Eventually the US would recall many of its citizens working or living in those regions.
The outbreak wouldn’t be declared contained by the WHO until July 2003.
SARS did make its way to the west, and the US, though in far smaller numbers.
Here’s a link to a spreadsheet breaking down all the afflicted countries. Keep in mind that these numbers are probably smaller than a true count, given how many unreported incidents there were.
SARS, Crippling and Cover-ups
It was not long for China to be accused of covering up the SARS outbreak–which we touched on a little bit. It was raised that at least two military institutions reported infection and death instances five times below the figures actually announced out of China in April 2003–when SARS had only claimed around 2,000 lives. There’s also the covering-up China did at the beginning of the outbreak, like preventing the WHO from heading into Guangdong–probably why the WHO pinned patient zero on Hong Kong.
SARS also managed to cripple a lot of medical facilities. It’s incredibly easy to come down with it. And as such many medical personnel helping those afflicted came down with the condition. With hospital staff dropping like flies and the number of those infected ever increasing, you can easily see how quickly this would become a pandemic nightmare.
Combine that with Chinas’ coverup, and SARS had gotten extremely out of hand by the time China ceded to any outbreaks within its borders.
If you thought the world learned a lesson form the SARS outbreak from 2002-2004, you’d be pretty wrong. 2015 brought with it MERS, Middle-Eastern Respiratory Syndrome. Or, “Camel Flu.” Of course, MERS is caused by a coronavirus, with similar symptoms. This time, the outbreak primarily slammed South Korea.
Just like China did in 2003 (and people fear is doing right now, we’ll get to it), South Korea did a lot of covering-up as well. Withholding details from the public as well as the WHO, medical institutions quickly spread MERS from one another.
This outbreak was, fortunately, much shorter, lasting only from late May 2015 to late July of 2015, reportedly claiming a smaller, but still tragic, 38 lives (~186 cases).
Despite patient zero being observed in May, it would not be until June, when over 2,300 people were quarantined and 64 cases (5 deaths) did South Korea begin disclosing the exposed medical centers.
Anyway, this just goes to show that we aren’t great at learning.
The Return of SARS
Alright, so SARS is likely not going to be coming back. But that does not mean another SARS-like incident may not be on the horizon.
On Saturday, January 18th, LAX began screening people coming from Wuhan, China for a new coronavirus. The same kind of virus that caused SARS. Now they didn’t do it out of nowhere, they did it because there was a marked uptick in those afflicted, coming through international terminals.
JFK and SDI would follow suit shortly after.
On January 21st, the first case in the US was reported in Snohomish County, Washington.
Authors Note: I was at LAX over the weekend of the 18th, the international terminals were not a fun time. Lots of signs saying you couldn’t interact with people from international flights before they were screened. Yes there were fines.
What’s making this new virus scary, is that it’s a completely new strain, and has never before been observed in humans. It had already proceeded to claim lives by the 18th in Wuhan, with China making its first statements on the 20th of January.
By now we’re conservatively looking at 300 new cases between China, Thailand, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and the US–the vast majority in China. Any and all cases out of China have been exported from Wuhan, China, as well as the current 6 reported deaths.
Be careful while you’re all travelling folks. Also wash your hands.
Scared of diseases and whatnot? Name some here.