How long did SARS last?

first: “Transparency is the best policy”. Although nothing was known about the SARS coronavirus at the time when the disease first struck, we soon realized that, as Doberstyn points out, “some of the affected countries did not acknowledge openly and squarely the presence of SARS, downplayed its extent, and attempted to prove that it was something else.” Perhaps, if there had been prompt and accurate reporting of the full facts so that others could have been forewarned and taken preventive measures, history may have taken a different course. Infectious diseases such as SARS do not respect international borders. In one of the chapters in part II of the book, Mangai Balasegaram & Alan Schnur caution that “one nation’s weak response could endanger the world’s public health security.”

Second: “Twenty-first-century science played a relatively small role in controlling SARS; nineteenth-century techniques continued to prove their value”. We can not deny the general truth that we still continue to battle twenty-first-century scourges with a nineteenth-century toolbox supplemented by a few modern scientific advances. While the identification of the coronavirus may not have contributed substantially to control efforts, what was gratifying was that during the SARS outbreak in 2003, there was an unprecedented collaboration among scientists and laboratories around the world to work together to identify the causative agent, map its genome and develop reliable diagnostic tests. There was openness and willingness to share critical scientific information promptly. As a result, the virus responsible was identified and its genome was mapped within weeks of the outbreak. The scientific world was shown at its best. It should continue in this vein, with greater and closer cooperation in the face of threats from new and emerging microbes.

Third: “Animal husbandry and marketing practices seriously affect human health”. Since its discovery in 2003, the SARS coronavirus has been thought to have originated in animals. One of the chapters of the book attempts to elucidate the evidence for this. In particular, it reports that the palm civet in southern China may have played a crucial role in this respect and that the close relationship between animals and humans seems to have been a likely precondition for the virus to jump the species barrier. Avian influenza is the single biggest public health threat the world faces right now. Fortunately, for the time being, human cases of avian influenza have arisen from direct infection from birds to humans, with only rare instances of probable human-to-human transmission. The SARS episode has underscored the importance of changing animal husbandry practices or “more viruses are likely to emerge from the animal world”. Old and unhygienic veterinary practices must be discarded or the public health risk from zoonotic diseases will always be with us.

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