From the producers of FRONTLINE, a series
from a new generation of video journalists.
Stories From a Small Planet
ANNOUNCER: Tonight on FRONTLINE/WORLD, three stories
from a small planet.
First, a report from Venezuela, a vital oil supplier to the
U.S. in turmoil over a controversial president.
JUAN FORERO, Reporter: She says Chavez is more important
than God because he is the hope of the people.
ANNOUNCER: In India, Osama bin Laden surfaces -- in
a Bengali street opera.
And finally, in Hong Kong, the inside story as scientists make
a breakthrough in the fight against SARS.
DAVID HO, MD, Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Ctr.:
and I would say that some of the heroes are here.
Venezuela: A Nation on Edge
Reported by Juan Forero
JUAN FORERO, Reporter: [voice-over] Venezuela
was supposed to have everything going for it-- a growing, educated
middle-class, politically stable -- almost dull -- but also
very rich. The wealth is in oil, and the countrys reserves
rival the largest producers in the Middle East. If there was
a Latin American nation on course to success, Venezuela was
In the short time Ive been covering this country for
The New York Times, all of that has changed. Last year
on April 11th, massive street protests against President Hugo
Chavez erupted into deadly violence and led briefly to his overthrow.
Ive come to Caracas for the anniversary of that event,
hoping to figure out where this countrys headed. How did
Venezuela, once so stable and rich, end up on the edge of political
Theres probably no better place to start understanding
whats going on here than to go to Simon Bolivar Plaza
in downtown Caracas. For the last year, supporters of President
Chavez -- or Chavistas, as theyre called -- gather here
to speak out in support of the man they feel speaks up for Venezuelas
MAN: [subtitles] Besides giving us direction,
he instructs us. He orients us and shows us what was covered
up. We were blindfolded before.
JUAN FORERO: [on camera] She says Chavez is more
important than God because he is the hope of the people. As
you can see, people are gathering around and many of them want
to give us their point of view. Well try talking to a
few other people.
[voice-over] But then something surprising happened.
WOMAN: [subtitles] Can I say the opposite?
JUAN FORERO: [on camera] This lady says, "Can
I say something contrary?" She wants to give an-- and other
people said, "No. Against Chavez? How can you do that?"
WOMAN: [subtitles] I would not vote for him again.
JUAN FORERO: [voice-over] But as the woman tried
to speak, the crowd grew angrier.
MAN IN CROWD: [subtitles] That lady is speaking
against Chavez! Not here.
JUAN FORERO: [on camera] She says, "I cant
give my opinion. There isnt a democracy here. Theres
no democracy here." Some people here say we should allow
the other side, but--
[voice-over] This is just the kind of incident that
has led to shootings at political rallies over the last year.
Increasingly, Venezuela has become a tinderbox for political
I led the woman into a nearby government office-- not because
we felt any danger, but the woman certainly did. It seems that
in Venezuela, it is only the extreme voices that get heard.
[on camera] As we brought her in, three men -- we dont
know who they are -- kind of followed us and listened to what
was being said, so she felt uncomfortable.
[voice-over] An official led the woman away and said
he was going to help her get out a back way. The official, who
is also a Chavez supporter, would not let us talk with the woman.
Later, he told us we shouldnt be covering this story at
all and suggested instead that we do something on how good the
tourism is in Venezuela.
It would be hard to do much of a story about tourism these
days. The economy here is in a freefall, predicted to decline
20 percent this year. The problem, many say, is the countrys
president, Hugo Chavez.
Venezuelans are deeply split on Chavez, but everyone agrees
that he is on a mission to remake his country. Mercurial and
impulsive, combative and charismatic, Chavez has an uncanny
ability to survive. But he has alienated most of the powerful
people in his country -- and the Bush administration -- by embracing
the likes of Fidel Castro, and in years past, Saddam Hussein.
But to his followers, Chavez is beloved.
[www.pbs.org: Compare Chavez with other leaders]
Chavezs arrival on the national stage is a story in itself.
In 1992, as an army officer, he helped lead a coup attempt against
the ruling government, which was notoriously corrupt. The coup
was unsuccessful, but this moment on national television put
him in the political spotlight.
HUGO CHAVEZ: [subtitles] It is time to reflect.
And new situations will arise. And the country definitely
needs to move towards a better future.
JUAN FORERO: As amazing as it now seems, this brief,
minute-long speech made him a star and six years later led to
him being elected president.
Chavez has always taken advantage of the times. I arranged
to have a drink with Julio Borges, an opponent and insightful
critic of the president. He says theres been an astonishing
social shift in the last 20 years.
JULIO BORGES: We have to answer a very amazing question.
Twenty years ago, in 1983, 75 percent of our populations belonged
to the middle class and almost 25 percent belonged to the poorest
class. Twenty years later, we have the contrary. Seventy-five
percent, and even more, probably 80 percent of the population
is under poverty, and less than 20 percent is the middle class.
JUAN FORERO: Borges says that this change has made Chavezs
rise to power predictable, if not inevitable.
JULIO BORGES: President Chavez is just a symptom of
the sickness that Venezuela has, and its not the illness
JUAN FORERO: Borges says that the illness in Venezuela
has been its over-reliance on cheap and abundant oil. One former
government official called it "the devils excrement."
[on camera] It only cost us about $2.50 to fill the
entire tank up. Americans would love this place.
[voice-over] Venezuela is the fourth largest supplier
of oil to the United States. But even with all that money, oil
has not been an economic cure-all. The population has outgrown
the rise in oil revenues, and successive governments have squandered
oil riches and stolen public funds. The few who have continued
to profit have been the very rich, who are staunchly opposed
to Chavez. They are a driving force in the so-called opposition
movement, made up largely of middle-class Venezuelans. These
enemies of the president have their own square across town from
[www.pbs.org: More on the battle over oil]
At Plaza Altamira, they gather daily to rally their anti-government
troops. General Gonzalez Gonzalez is one of their heroes. The
opposition says Chavez wants to be another Castro.
Gen. GONZALEZ GONZALEZ: [subtitles] Chavez has
Cubanized, or is trying to Cubanize, Venezuela. Hes created
an image of differences and divisions among the population,
making lower-class people believe that what they dont
have was taken away by the upper classes.
JUAN FORERO: I do think it says something about Venezuelas
unusual brand of democracy that this man, who has worked hard
to overthrow Chavez, isnt in prison. Instead, hes
free to speak out, and hes treated like a celebrity.
Gen. GONZALEZ GONZALEZ: [subtitles] Freedom justifies
any action, including armed action.
JUAN FORERO: Last year, Gonzalez played an important
role in what has become the defining event in Venezuelas
political crisis. Outraged by Chavezs so-called Bolivarian
revolution, the opposition, a half million strong, took to the
streets, demanding his removal. But then, as the protesters
approached the presidential palace, shots rang out, some from
this bridge, which has come to symbolize the day.
[on camera] The gunmen on the bridge, most of them,
were firing from over here. They were behind this wall, and
there were bullets flying this way. They would come out, fire
a couple of shots with semi-automatic handguns, and then they
would hide behind the wall.
[voice-over] While the gun battle raged on the streets,
inside the presidential palace, a coup was taking place. President
Chavez was taken by the military and flown out of Caracas. The
opposition put their own man in charge. Washington gave implicit
support. But when word got out about the coup, Chavez supporters
[on camera] People from the poor neighborhoods around
the downtown area swarmed these streets, and then they stormed
the presidential palace. I was here that evening before he arrived,
and it was a tense night. There were people scurrying about
from his party, allies, deputies who belonged to his party,
all trying to orchestrate his return. It wasnt a 100 percent
sure that he would return, but the palace was in the hands of
his supporters and the streets around downtown were controlled
by his people. And then at 3:00 AM on April 14th, the helicopter
landed, and Mr. Chavez made an unlikely return back to power
just two days after being overthrown.
[voice-over] At Plaza Bolivar, there are posters of
the 19 who were killed on the day of the coup. The Chavistas
have memorialized them. But equally, the opposition has claimed
them as martyrs to their cause.
Jorge Tortoza was one of the dead. A newspaper photographer
covering the violence, his death was caught on videotape just
as he enters the frame at left. No one knows who shot Tortoza
and some of the others, whether it was opposition members or
Chavez loyalists, a fact that haunts Tortozas brother,
WILLIAM TORTOZA: [subtitles] The investigation
has been very slow.
JUAN FORERO: I met William on the corner where his brother
WILLIAM TORTOZA: [subtitles] Really, what is
lacking is the governments help. They havent been
able to help us solve the case of my brothers death.
JUAN FORERO: The Chavez government has not prosecuted
anyone for the murders.
Over the last year, both sides have used the political crisis
for their own gain. Earlier this year, the opposition again
tried to force Chavez out by launching a massive strike to shut
down the countrys all-important oil industry. The strike
devastated the economy but failed to oust Chavez.
I came to talk to Miguel Otero, a wealthy publisher of one
of the largest papers here. The media in Venezuela is strongly
controlled by the opposition, and they have criticized Chavez
at every turn.
MIGUEL OTERO: We have to get rid of Chavez.
JUAN FORERO: Otero acknowledges his papers bias
but says they have to be harsh on the government because Chavez
is leading the country on a path to disaster.
MIGUEL OTERO: The attachment with Chavez is an emotional
attachment, which is built up not on ideology, like Marxism
or things like that. Its built up on resentment.
JUAN FORERO: [on camera] A lot of opposition
people have said if theres anything that Chavez has done
thats good for the country, is its made people political.
They feel enfranchised.
MIGUEL OTERO: The real revolution that Chavez has done
is not his revolution. Its the revolution that is coming
after him. Because he has politicized people so much that anybody
who comes to power after Chavez will be obliged to talk to people
every day, to make decisions in terms of what people want. He
wont be able to govern like people before Chavez. I mean,
thats a big revolution.
JUAN FORERO: [voice-over] Chavez supporters say
that the revolution is already here. On the day of the anniversary,
I went up into the barrios that surround downtown Caracas and
house most of the citys poor. The people who live here
defended Chavez last year and still believe in the promise of
his government. They were eager to show me why they were so
passionate about their president. Nair showed me around her
house, which she hopes to own one day, thanks to a new government
[on camera] They have a picture of Chavez here.
[subtitles] You love Chavez?
WOMAN: [subtitles] Very much. Very much. Hes
the only president whos taught us what democracy is.
[www.pbs.org: Read Juan Foreros NY Times reports]
JUAN FORERO: [voice-over] For all their pride
in Chavez, the people here dont have a lot to show for
it. They pointed to this hillside wall, which they built with
bricks provided by the government. For these people, a little
help goes a long way, a measure of how much they have been ignored
in the past.
One important area where they say government spending is up
is education. These women teach at a neighborhood school.
TEACHER: [subtitles] Since Chavez came into power,
kids can stay at school all day from 8:00 in the morning until
3:00 in the afternoon. In addition, they give them breakfast,
lunch and a snack.
JUAN FORERO: Its hard to tell how much people
are benefiting. The government programs here in the barrio seem
small-scale and haphazard. And the fact is, poverty has increased
by 10 percent while Chavez has been in office. But in this neighborhood,
people blame the opposition. They point to the coup and four
national strikes for whats behind the countrys problems.
And you cant miss their enthusiasm for Chavez.
[on camera] Everyones getting together with their
flags and just walking downtown, looking for buses and subways
[voice-over] The Chavez rally was a celebration, not
just of his return to power but of his emergence as a new leader
in Latin America and of a new revolution from the left. Chavez
chose to mark the anniversary with a press conference at the
presidential palace. I was curious if he would announce any
concrete plans to resolve the ongoing crisis.
Chavez is famous for his long-windedness.
Pres. HUGO CHAVEZ: [subtitles] For the privileged,
there have never been any laws. Look at the jails. Theyre
full of poor people.
JUAN FORERO: He spoke extemporaneously for three hours
before he took a single question.
Pres. HUGO CHAVEZ: [subtitles] What rich person
is in jail? They pay the judge, looking for decisions. The poor
are the ones in jail.
JUAN FORERO: At one point, his staff -- thankfully --
passed out coffee. Finally, late in the day, i got my chance
to ask a question.
[subtitles]_ Hi. Im Juan Forero of The New York Times
and PBS. Good afternoon, Mr. President.
Pres. HUGO CHAVEZ: [subtitles] Werent you
JUAN FORERO: [subtitles] Both. New York Times,
but also PBS.
Pres. HUGO CHAVEZ: [subtitles] What does "PBS"
JUAN FORERO: [subtitles] Its public television
in the United States.
Pres. HUGO CHAVEZ: [subtitles] Do you broadcast
from Iraq? You dont reach that far?
JUAN FORERO: [subtitles] Well, maybe soon.
Pres. HUGO CHAVEZ: [subtitles] You werent
given a chance there?
JUAN FORERO: [voice-over] I asked the president
about Jorge Tortoza and the other killings and why, after a
full year had passed, nothing had been done.
Pres. HUGO CHAVEZ: [subtitles] I cannot make
conclusions about the investigation because its not the
role of the executive power directly. But I can tell you, for
example, in looking for answers, but firm answers, the sad truth
is there have not been any convictions for those crimes.
JUAN FORERO: Theres something about Chavez that
is both hopeful and frustrating. Hes made a lot of promises
and theres a lot expected of him, but at the same time,
its hard to pin down the man or his accomplishments.
That evening, the opposition held their own rally. It was every
bit as big as the Chavez rally, and with the power of the media
behind it, it was a lot more slick. I was struck that Tortozas
image showed up at both rallies, underscoring for me how both
sides have manipulated the victims for political gain.
These people have tried everything to get rid of Chavez, but
now he may have offered them their last best chance, an offer
they had earlier dismissed, a popular referendum on his rule
later this year. For now, polls in Venezuela are running against
Chavez, but no one here is counting him out.
ANNOUNCER: Coming up later, chasing the SARS virus in
Hong Kong. But first, we find Osama bin Laden on stage in a
India: Starring Osama bin Laden
Reported by Arun Rath
ARUN RATH, Reporter: [voice-over] While the rest
of the world searches for Osama bin Laden, I had found him here,
on a street in Calcutta.
[on camera] I hate to say this, but you probably wouldnt
be able to walk too far through America dressed up like that.
[voice-over] This theatrical Osama bin Laden is the
star of a wildly successful opera about 9/11 and the aftermath.
"OSAMA BIN LADEN: [subtitles] I am not
one to accept defeat before I am defeated. No matter how
mighty the enemy, his grave is already marked.
ARUN RATH: With some make-up and music, the events of
September 11th have taken on a life of their own and become
myth in Calcutta.
In the West, Calcutta is known for its image of overpopulation
and poverty, but this is a place churning with art, culture
and political debate. And I had arrived at a provocative time.
The war was raging in Iraq, and Hindus and Muslims put aside
their deep-seated differences to join in heated protests against
Americas actions. With this backdrop of intense anger,
I was both curious and apprehensive about something else making
news in Calcutta, the opera Osama bin Laden.
Im about to meet the producers who had dreamed up this
opera, men who in the past had green-lighted shows about Ho
Chi Minh and Hitler. I almost expected to meet Mel Brooks. Instead,
I found Gautam Chakrabarty and Tinkari Goswami, the men who
run Star Opera. All their big plans are hatched under this tiny
[on camera] So how did you come to produce Osama
bin Laden ?
GAUTAM CHAKRABARTY: Our organizer, those who are making
jatra, they want current affairs. And we thought that Laden
is a current affair, so it will be popular for the crowd.
ARUN RATH: [voice-over] Jatra is the Bengali
word for this type of opera, and the jatra Osama bin Laden
has been the biggest hit ever for these producers.
GAUTAM CHAKRABARTY: They all want to see what is a Laden
and what Laden has done.
ARUN RATH: [on camera] Youre kind of being
like the BBC for them?
TINKARI GOSWAMI: [subtitles] The news of so many
people dying at the Pentagon, so many people in America, the
news that such a serious event took place, it has to reach places
where newspapers arent available.
ARUN RATH: [voice-over] Im off to meet
their latest star.
My father is from a state just south of here, but I dont
speak a word of Bengali, so Ive brought along a translator,
NILAYAN DUTTA: We are now close to Osama bin Ladens
place in Calcutta.
ARUN RATH: Even though he wasnt the real bin Laden,
I couldnt wait to interrogate him.
[on camera] How does it feel to play the most hated
man for all of Americans? Is that a burden, or is that just
irrelevant as an actor?
AMIT PRADHAN: [subtitles] I try to portray the
facts about bin Laden to people who may not know about him.
Is he really this vicious terrorist or just a devout Muslim?
I just want to make them understand that.
ARUN RATH: [voice-over] I asked him if he had
experienced any problems playing such a controversial figure,
particularly because he is a Hindu playing such an infamous
AMIT PRADHAN: [subtitles] Yes. Outraged people
have told us not to perform in their neighborhoods.
NILAYAN DUTTA: [subtitles] What kind of people?
AMIT PRADHAN: [subtitles] Hindus, Muslims, local
people. I dont know.
ARUN RATH: The government threatened to shut down the
production because any drama dealing with religious conflict
could resonate with long-simmering Hindu-Muslim tension and
It was strange enough for me to imagine an opera about Osama
bin Laden, stranger still that it would incorporate a love story.
Arun Mukherjee plays the romantic lead. It was 105 degrees on
the street and even hotter in this little room. But sweat wasnt
the only thing we had in common. In this jatra, Arun plays an
Indian-American journalist who lives in New York.
NILAYAN DUTTA: Its a great coincidence. Great
ARUN RATH: [on camera] Both named Arun. [laughter]
NILAYAN DUTTA: Yeah, both named Arun. [laughter]
ARUN RATH: [voice-over] Arun is one of Calcuttas
most sought-after leading men, and he has devoted his entire
acting career to the jatra.
ARUN MUKHERJEE: [subtitles] Jatra is one of the
oldest Indian folk art forms. Its an effective way to
reach people. And if they dont like it, theyll tell
you. To your face!
ARUN RATH: As we got to know each other, I discovered
we had one more thing in common. We both loved Rabindranath
Tagore, Indias most famous poet. I knew any Bengali actor
would be able to sing one of his poems. It took just a little
prompting for Arun to indulge me.
ARUN MUKHERJEE: [singing] [subtitles]
I dont know right from wrong / I only know you, my beautiful
beloved / I dont know right from wrong / Would you ask
the ultimate price for love?
ARUN RATH: Its the night of the performance, and
Amit has promised us a sneak preview. But when we arrive, there
seems to be a problem.
AMIT PRADHAN: [subtitles] Ive been waiting
for you since 10:00 oclock this morning until 5:00 oclock!
ARUN RATH: Is he mad?
[on camera] So we had some miscommunication, and we
kept Osama bin Laden waiting all day, probably not a smart thing
to do to the worlds most dangerous man.
[voice-over] But were lucky. He lets it go and
rehearses his lines for us and for his neighbors, who quickly
AMIT PRADHAN: [as bin Laden] [subtitles]
Our long struggle to liberate all Muslims from the infidels
will continue for many years to come. But always remember
one thing. Empowering jihad is every Muslims sacred
duty. And at the right time, you will strengthen my powerful
ARUN RATH: Before the performance, we stopped by Aruns
for dinner. But language barriers being what they are, another
ARUN MUKHERJEE: [subtitles] None for me, thank
ARUN RATH: When Arun invited us for dinner, I assumed
wed be eating together. I should have known. No actor
anywhere in the world would eat before a performance. But sometimes
its not just about speaking the same language.
ARUN MUKHERJEE: [subtitles] Meeting you gave
us the chance to create a relationship between two different
countries such as America and India.
ARUN RATH: In America, I feel Indian. But here I feel
utterly American. I wondered how they saw me.
[www.pbs.org: More on the reporters experience]
MAN: [subtitles] It is very difficult to say.
AMIT PRADHAN: [subtitles] His mannerisms and
speech sounds more like Bengali person to me.
WOMAN: [subtitles] His outward look is American,
but inside he seems Indian.
ARUN RATH: While wed been talking, right outside
Aruns home, a street that just an hour ago was like any
other has transformed into a busy theater scene.
ARUN MUKHERJEE: [subtitles] This is the Green
ARUN RATH: [on camera] So were here.
[voice-over] This was unlike any Green Room I had ever
seen. But while settings may change, backstage tension is universal.
ACTOR: [subtitles] Wheres my gray?
What the heck! Im away one day, and all my stuff is
ATTENDANT: [subtitles] How should I know?
ACTOR: [subtitles] Youre in charge
of supplies. Who else am I supposed to ask?
ATTENDANT: [subtitles] So Im to open
each box and check? I dont think so!
ARUN RATH: Amit was an island of calm in the chaos as
he transformed into bin Laden. Arun was the only one with a
private dressing room, if thats what you can call it.
It was nearing 10:00 PM, but it was still more than 100 degrees
and stifling, not easy weather to put on pancake make-up.
ARUN MUKHERJEE: [subtitles] I cant
do my make-up like this, you guys.
ARUN RATH: It wouldnt be the theater without a
ARUN MUKHERJEE: [subtitles] Hey Raju, could
you see about that fan, please?
ATTENDANT: [subtitles] I went there. They
dont have one. Khoka went out to get it.
ATTENDANT: [subtitles] What about that fan
ARUN MUKHERJEE: [subtitles] This fan? Could
you hook this up? Could you get this plugged in?
ARUN RATH: [on camera] This PA system looks like
an electricians nightmare, but probably a sound archivists
dream. It looks like its probably still using vacuum tubes.
Id be terrified to touch any of it. Got about eight or
ten microphones dangling from the stage. Speakers also. Im
very curious to see how this PA system works.
[voice-over] Its close to midnight, and the musicians
start to play. They wont stop for another three-and-a-half
hours. To the thousands who filled the streets, the late hour
didnt seem to matter, even to the many children in the
The opera starts out with scenes of New York before 9/11, people
dancing without a care in the world. Then the tragedy of September
11th. This beginning didnt surprise me, but my feelings
did. Even this far from New York, this absurdly condensed version
of that day brought back a flash of my real September 11th experience.
But soon after, things take a lighter turn. Part political
drama, part Bollywood musical, these journalist lovers, Serena
and Dilara, are reunited at Ground Zero.
Then Osama bin Laden takes center stage. Hes close to
what I imagined, at least at this point in the opera.
AMIT PRADHAN: [as bin Laden] [subtitles]
Because of his fear of me, Bush flew from Camp David and
circled the sky for hours, and his great plane was even
guarded by fighter jets.
ARUN RATH: Then events take a surreal turn.
ACTOR: [as White House aide] [subtitles]
Let fires of rebellion and riot rage in every nation! Let
there be war among nations!
ARUN RATH: At the White House, Bushs advisers
seethe with rage. These men are bloodthirsty, maniacal, even
more despicable than bin Laden himself.
ACTOR: [as White House aide] [subtitles]
Let corpses of babies and old people, civilians, litter
ARUN RATH: Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, the American-backed
Northern Alliance raped women, killed babies and then celebrated.
Then another huge shock. Bin Laden comes back on stage, this
time portrayed as a Muslim Robin Hood protecting his countrymen,
especially women and children.
All along, I had assumed that bin Laden would be the villain
of this opera, but here is bin Laden the saint. But most unsettling
was watching my namesake, Arun, playing the one person I should
have related to in this opera. His character, an Indian-American
journalist, is so upset with Americas policies after 9/11
that he abruptly abandons his career and becomes an anti-war
ACTOR: [as journalist] [subtitles]
No war! We demand peace!
ARUN RATH: And in the final scene of the opera, while
protesting for peace in Afghanistan, he is assassinated-- not
by the Taliban or al Qaeda but by an American soldier. I was
left with the message that here, American imperialism is more
savage and cruel than bin Ladens terrorism. And whats
worse, I faced the chilling reality that this take on Osama
bin Laden and 9/11 might be the only version that endures with
some people in the crowd.
GIRL IN AUDIENCE: [subtitles] Ive always
thought bin Laden was a bad guy. But in this jatra, he came
across as a good man.
GIRL IN AUDIENCE: [subtitles] This jatra showed
bin Laden as a different man, a man concerned for the poor and
for people who need him. Now I feel like Ive seen a more
human side of bin Laden.
ARUN RATH: [on camera] So what did you think
of bin Laden?
MAN IN AUDIENCE: [subtitles] I think the bin
Laden character was accurate because he is fighting for religion.
ARUN RATH: [voice-over] I wondered if Americans
could understand this. Its not just radical Muslims this
message resonates with, but with Hindus here in Calcutta.
[on camera] What about his means, the fact that hes
a terrorist? Is that-- or does he not consider him a terrorist?
MAN IN AUDIENCE: [subtitles] Nobody wanted a
terrorist to have been created, but America isnt an innocent
party. They created bin Laden, and theyll be the ones
to finish him off.
ARUN RATH: [voice-over] And it was hard to separate
this distinctly anti- American view from the warmth and friendship
I had felt from the cast and crew I had come to like.
AMIT PRADHAN: [subtitles] Im just an actor.
I can be a singing and dancing villain. I can be anything!
ARUN RATH: Of course, for any cast, its hard to
argue with full houses and enthusiastic applause. And like any
actor, Amit already savors the next role he wants to play, Saddam
NILAYAN DUTTA: He was asking, "How did you like
ANNOUNCER: Finally tonight, scientists make a breakthrough
against the SARS virus.
Hong Kong: Chasing the Virus
Reported by Renata Simone
RENATA SIMONE, Reporter: [voice-over] Hong Kong
is an island at the mouth of the Pearl River, on the southeast
curve of the coastline of China. Of all the shipping ports in
the world, Hong Kong is the busiest. These days, the harbor
is almost empty. From the minute we got off the plane, we could
tell something was wrong. A thousand flights a day had become
AIRPORT PA SYSTEM: Please cover your nose and mouth
when sneezing or coughing.
RENATA SIMONE: While SARS kept the world away from Hong
Kong, there were some people who had to come here. Dr. David
Ho is one the worlds leading AIDS researchers. Ive
been reporting on his work for more than a decade. By unlocking
the secrets of the AIDS virus, he developed the protease inhibitor
treatment that keeps AIDS patients healthy for years.
SARS was an unexpected challenge.
DAVID HO, MD, Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Ctr.: Its
sort of like you see a fire in the next town, and youre
very anxious. But if people-- folks over there say, "Please
come and help us," you definitely cannot say no. And so
here we are, in our fireman outfits.
RENATA SIMONE: David Ho has an idea about how to attack
the virus. Hes brought his top researcher, Linqi Zhang,
from New York to test his theory in the lab at Hong Kong University.
LINQI ZHANG: It looks like were real--
DAVID HO: Real virus hunters. Hi. Were here.
RENATA SIMONE: This is the story of what happened in
this room over the next three days.
SARS caught Hong Kong and the world by surprise. By the beginning
of June, more than 8,400 cases had been reported in 29 countries.
Nearly 800 people had died. That SARS spread so quickly around
the world is a warning about a dark side to globalism, a fact
of life in the new world of international trade and fast, easy
And Hong Kong is a gateway. The public health director, Dr.
Margaret Chan, showed me how SARS spread.
Dr. MARGARET CHAN: This is Guangzhou, and from there
they have the outbreak in February. And you can see Guangzhou
and Hong Kong are very close. You know how many people move
across the border? At its peak, its about 300,000 a day.
RENATA SIMONE: It took us just an hour of travel across
the Pearl River delta to reach Guandong province. This is a
different world. Here people live and work in close proximity
to animals, domestic and wild.
[www.pbs.org: Read the interview with the reporter]
With its dense population and year-round subtropical climate,
its a breeding ground for new viruses. Some of these viruses
cross the species barrier from animals to people. Nearly all
of the global flu epidemics of the past 40 years started here.
And so did SARS.
On February 21st, Dr. Liu Jianlun crossed the border from Guandong
province to come to his nephews wedding in Hong Kong.
He came here to the Metropole Hotel. He didnt know it,
but by the time he checked in, he was infected with the then-unknown
virus. His room was on the 9th floor.
Later, researchers discovered that this was the link to the
global outbreak. There were nine other guests on this floor,
who, when they left the hotel, took SARS with them to Singapore,
Vietnam, Canada. The virus spread.
The SARS virus attaches to a healthy cell, penetrates it and
replicates. Cell by cell, the virus damages a victims
lungs. David Hos idea, based on an AIDS treatment, is
to stop the virus by using pieces of protein -- peptides --
to block the attachment. Linqi has designed a set of peptides
that they hope will work.
LINQI ZHANG: So we made all together 12 peptides. Because
I designed it, so I put an "LQZ" number 1 through
RENATA SIMONE: [on camera] Thats you.
LINQI ZHANG: Right.
RENATA SIMONE: [voice-over] A day after they
began, David Ho and Linqi check the results. Theyre looking
to see if the peptides are protecting the cells.
DAVID HO: No sign at all? Could I see what the viral
cells look like? No virus. Right. Its too hard to
read right now.
Its still a little too early to read the results. Usually,
it takes around 48 hours.
RENATA SIMONE: The results are frustrating.
DAVID HO: Boy, its damn slow. I think I was misled
by the description in the paper saying culture is wiped out
in 24 hours. All right, lets hope for the best tomorrow.
RENATA SIMONE: This is rush hour that day in Hong Kong.
The economic and human impact of SARS has been devastating.
This apartment complex had been hit the hardest. More than 320
people living here got sick from the virus, 42 died. It was
one of the few places where I felt at risk. Most of the cases
were in this building. Mr. Tsang-Kam-On was the only person
who would talk to us.
Mr. TSANG: [subtitles] We had to stay here in
isolation. And then we were sent to a quarantine camp.
RENATA SIMONE: While the residents were quarantined,
investigators moved in. Their detective work zeroed in on the
bathroom.Mr. Tsang shows the faulty plumbing through the stairwell
Mr, TSANG: [subtitles] This is the problem! Its
the toilet. The infected people didnt flush the toilet
with the cover down.
RENATA SIMONE: The investigators found the virus in
the sewage. And through these leaky, exposed pipes, the virus
escaped and infected two vertical blocks of apartments. The
larger lesson was that transmission of the new virus was different
from the flu or the common cold. It was limited to closer contact.
Soon the most dangerous place to be was the hospital, where
the Reverend Simon Yeung went to visit a sick parishioner and
got sick himself.
SIMON YEUNG: [subtitles] When the medication
could not relieve my suffering, I thought I was going to die.
At the same time, I was struggling emotionally. As a priest,
I know death is not a negative thing, but I kept struggling.
RENATA SIMONE: Simon Yeung was lucky. After being in
intensive care, he recovered, his immune system fighting the
But without any known treatment, life has changed here. They
try to overcome the epidemic of fear that has taken hold of
the city, but it has still altered even the most trusting of
The virus attaches to the healthy cell by extending a long
molecule from its surface. David Hos experiment is designed
to block this action. At the lab, the team is tense.
[on camera] Why are you nervous?
LINQI ZHANG: Because it carries so much weight and expectations.
LEO POON: And other people just put a high hope on you.
LINQI ZHANG: We put more pressure on ourselves.
LEO POON: Oh, yeah!
LINQI ZHANG: Thats called motivation. [laughter]
LEO POON: And we would like to save the world.
LINQI ZHANG: Lets go!
RICHARD KAO: Lets go in.
RENATA SIMONE: [voice-over] David Ho has left
them for the day to fly to a meeting in Taiwan. This time, we
persuade them to let us inside.
LEO POON: OK, guys. Keep your fingers crossed.
LINQI ZHANG: Moment of truth, man.
LEO POON: OK, this is plate one. OK. Im checking
the first row first, to make sure it has no CPE.
RENATA SIMONE: CPE -- the cytopathic effect, the measure
of the damage the virus does to the cell.
LEO POON: No CPE. The second column, toxicity--
RENATA SIMONE: Too many peptides can prove toxic.
LEO POON: Toxicity, toxicity, toxicity. No CPE.
RENATA SIMONE: For two hours they read the assays.
LINQI ZHANG: Something interesting. Number two!
RICHARD KAW: Consistently starting from here, you
can see that it is very consistent. Weve got a CPE
with definitely some-- some effect.
LINQI ZHANG: Weve got to check what region
LEO POON: Hard to judge this one.
RENATA SIMONE: They check and recheck.
LEO POON: Thats it! Wow! Thats it!
LINQI ZHANG: OK, so what is that?
LEO POON: Excellent. Something interesting. Based
on this, it seems that its actually very potent.
RENATA SIMONE: "Something interesting"-- 5
of the 12 peptides have protected the cells from the SARS virus.
LINQI ZHANG: [on the phone] Hello? Hey, David,
some of CPE results and then the plaque reduction have to
wait till tomorrow. But CPE readings is encouraging. Leo
went to do the first reading, and Richard followed. And
the reading, I checked it. The reading are very consistent.
All right, David. So you-- thats very encouraging
news. And enjoy your meeting. Thats good enough.
RENATA SIMONE: Waiting for David Ho to get back that
night, we go across the bay to Kowloon, for a few hours away.
LINQI ZHANG: Its very natural for people to fear
when they know theres no treatment, no vaccine. Very natural.
But in Chinese theres a saying that-- meaning in English
that you will 100 percent win if you know yourself and your
enemy. Very, very philosophical.
RENATA SIMONE: Back at the hotel, he calls Beijing.
LINQI ZHANG: [subtitles] Hi, Mom. This is
your son. Happy Mothers Day! I have some good news.
The experiment succeeded! This is my Mothers Day gift
RENATA SIMONE: By the time David Ho returns, its
DAVID HO: Hey. Come in.
LINQI ZHANG: Hey, David. Come in. You must be tired,
DAVID HO: Not bad.
LINQI ZHANG: Not for this.
DAVID HO: It would have been really tiring if the--
LINQI ZHANG: --the results are terrible. If the
results are terrible, youd be really tired. So not
quantitative yet, but you can see the trend.
RENATA SIMONE: They work until 2:00 in the morning.
DAVID HO: You know, this antibody, I thought a lot
about it on the plane. It could explain why some people
get really sick and die and others dont.
LINQI ZHANG: So this could be another big story.
RENATA SIMONE: Tomorrow theyll present the results
to the public.
DAVID HO: [press conference] We are certainly
pleased with the result that several of these peptides now
actually protected the cells from SARS virus infection.
So this is not testing in animals, this is not testing in
patients. This is the very first step. And due to the good
work of Richard Kao here, Leo Poon and Linqi himself, they
have been slaving away day and night in the laboratory.
And I think its been a heroic effort, and I would
say that some of the heroes are here in front of you.
RENATA SIMONE: David Ho knows that science is a long
and unpredictable journey. If all goes well, they will start
testing the treatment in people later this summer.
In Hong Kong, they wait hopefully for relief from the SARS
virus, and with caution for the next virus that comes down the
Pearl River from China.
A NATION ON EDGE
UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism
Produced in association with The New York Times
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CHASING THE VIRUS
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