On February 21, 2003, Dr. Liu Jianlun, a specialist in southern China who was treating patients with a baffling new respiratory disease, made a momentous decision. Despite experiencing the flu-like symptoms himself, he opted to visit nearby Hong Kong for a wedding. Dr. Liu checked into Hong Kong’s Metropole hotel, where he unknowingly transmitted his infectious disease to other guests; they, in turn, set off devastating outbreaks in Toronto, Canada; Singapore; and Vietnam. The hotel became ground zero for the 21st century’s first major epidemic, caused by a deadly new virus—later called Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).
From its epicenter in southern China, SARS went on to infect 8,096 people around the world and kill 774. National and international public-health resources were stretched to the breaking point. For example, in a matter of days, Toronto officials cornered the North American supply of N95 disposable respirators, leaving no room for error if another crisis had erupted. Air travel was curtailed. Econ-omies in the affected countries were crippled and supply chains worldwide were disrupted. Morgan Stanley put the global economic hit at $30 billion.
SARS showed that, in an age of international travel, “a sneeze on the other side of the world can bring infectious disease to us in days, if not hours,” said the SARS Commission, which conducted a judicial inquiry into the Toronto outbreak. Even so, the deaths, illnesses, and economic disruptions it caused were relatively constrained because it was a multiregional event—not a global incident.
Imagine, then, what could happen in the event of a worldwide pandemic, such as might be caused from a new influenza strain. (SARS was not caused by a flu virus, though its victims suffered from flu like symptoms. Instead it was caused by a completely new coronavirus.) The worst flu pandemic, which occurred in 1918-19, is estimated to have killed more than 50 million people. As Dr. Danuta Skowronski of the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control has noted, “A pandemic could make SARS look like a cakewalk.”