SARS Lessons Lost

What the United States should have learned from SARS—and blatantly ignored.

Indigo Olivier May 11, 2020

A man in Shanghai wears a face mask during the 2003 SARS outbreak. Shanghai quarantined visitors from other regions hit by SARS, such as Beijing, for 10 days, regardless of symptoms. (Photo by Liu Jin/AFP via Getty Images)

Con­trary to Pres­i­dent Trump’s claims, the new coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic was not unfore­seen” and did not come out of nowhere.” The out­break marks the third time in the past 30 years that a coro­n­avirus has become a glob­al health threat, each time with new warn­ings from pub­lic health offi­cials for the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty to bet­ter pre­pare for the next one.

On March 12, 2003, the World Health Orga­ni­za­tion (WHO) issued a glob­al alert about an unusu­al pneu­mo­nia and flu-like ill­ness which came to be known as SARS, severe acute res­pi­ra­to­ry syn­drome. Like Covid-19 today, the cause of SARS was iden­ti­fied as a strain of coro­n­avirus pre­vi­ous­ly unknown in humans. By the time the WHO had declared SARS con­tained” in July 2003, it had infect­ed more than 8,000 peo­ple and killed more than 800.

In his August 2003 arti­cle for In These Times, Learn­ing from SARS,” epi­demi­ol­o­gist Mark Paras­can­dola wrote: 

Why should SARS war­rant such glob­al atten­tion? … because there is a lim­it­ed win­dow of oppor­tu­ni­ty with­in which to defeat the dis­ease. David Hey­mann, WHO exec­u­tive direc­tor for com­mu­ni­ca­ble dis­eases, explained, When we put out the announce­ment about this new dis­ease, one of our major con­cerns was that maybe we could stop this dis­ease from becom­ing endemic.”

More­over, while the num­ber of deaths has been rel­a­tive­ly small so far, that could change dra­mat­i­cal­ly if the dis­ease were to spread freely through­out Asia. Esti­mates of the death rate for peo­ple infect­ed with the SARS virus run from 4% to 10%. The death rate from the Span­ish Flu, which cir­cled the globe and killed 50 mil­lion peo­ple between 1918 and 1920, was low­er, about 3%. But what made the Span­ish Flu so dead­ly was not a high mor­tal­i­ty rate, but the fact that it was so eas­i­ly trans­mit­ted and infect­ed entire populations.

Inter­na­tion­al coop­er­a­tion and swift efforts to track and iso­late infect­ed indi­vid­u­als effec­tive­ly con­tained the 2003 SARS out­break with­in months. As Paras­can­dola wrote in 2003, the real les­son here is not about SARS, but about our capac­i­ty to respond to the next big bio­log­i­cal threat.”

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, after the WHO declared a glob­al health emer­gency in Jan­u­ary of this year and an offi­cial pan­dem­ic March 11, Trump was still con­flat­ing Covid-19 with the flu as late as March 27. By then, the Unit­ed States had more than 100,000 cas­es. And despite the dev­as­tat­ing effects in Chi­na and Italy, shel­ter-in-place orders only began March 19, while a num­ber of states already are begin­ning to reopen. Trump also dis­man­tled the team respon­si­ble for deal­ing with pan­demics in 2018, pro­posed deep cuts to the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion and halt­ed U.S. fund­ing for the WHO.

The admin­is­tra­tion has not only failed to learn from the 2003 SARS out­break, but is active­ly fail­ing to learn lessons from Covid-19

Indi­go Olivi­er is an In These Times Good­man Inves­tiga­tive Fellow.

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