Frontline World

About the Series


From the producers of FRONTLINE, a series of stories

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 country’s reserves rival the largest producers in the Middle East. If there was a Latin American nation on course to success, Venezuela was it.

In the short time I’ve 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. I’ve come to Caracas for the anniversary of that event, hoping to figure out where this country’s headed. How did Venezuela, once so stable and rich, end up on the edge of political chaos?

There’s probably no better place to start understanding what’s going on here than to go to Simon Bolivar Plaza in downtown Caracas. For the last year, supporters of President Chavez -- or Chavistas, as they’re called -- gather here to speak out in support of the man they feel speaks up for Venezuela’s poor.

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. We’ll 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 can’t give my opinion. There isn’t a democracy here. There’s 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 passions.

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 don’t 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 shouldn’t 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 country’s 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.

[ Compare Chavez with other leaders]

Chavez’s 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 there’s 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 Chavez’s rise to power predictable, if not inevitable.

JULIO BORGES: President Chavez is just a symptom of the sickness that Venezuela has, and it’s not the illness itself.

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 devil’s 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 the Chavistas.

[ 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. He’s created an image of differences and divisions among the population, making lower-class people believe that what they don’t have was taken away by the upper classes.

JUAN FORERO: I do think it says something about Venezuela’s unusual brand of democracy that this man, who has worked hard to overthrow Chavez, isn’t in prison. Instead, he’s free to speak out, and he’s 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 Venezuela’s political crisis. Outraged by Chavez’s 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 reacted.

[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 wasn’t 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 Tortoza’s brother, William.

WILLIAM TORTOZA: [subtitles] The investigation has been very slow.

JUAN FORERO: I met William on the corner where his brother was killed.

WILLIAM TORTOZA: [subtitles] Really, what is lacking is the government’s help. They haven’t been able to help us solve the case of my brother’s 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 country’s 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 paper’s 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. It’s built up on resentment.

JUAN FORERO: [on camera] A lot of opposition people have said if there’s anything that Chavez has done that’s good for the country, is it’s made people political. They feel enfranchised.

MIGUEL OTERO: The real revolution that Chavez has done is not his revolution. It’s 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 won’t be able to govern like people before Chavez. I mean, that’s 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 city’s 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 program.

[on camera] They have a picture of Chavez here.

[subtitles] You love Chavez?

WOMAN: [subtitles] Very much. Very much. He’s the only president who’s taught us what democracy is.

[ Read Juan Forero’s NY Times reports]

JUAN FORERO: [voice-over] For all their pride in Chavez, the people here don’t 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: It’s 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 what’s behind the country’s problems. And you can’t miss their enthusiasm for Chavez.

[on camera] Everyone’s getting together with their flags and just walking downtown, looking for buses and subways to catch.

[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. They’re 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. I’m Juan Forero of The New York Times and PBS. Good afternoon, Mr. President.

Pres. HUGO CHAVEZ: [subtitles] Weren’t you from television?

JUAN FORERO: [subtitles] Both. New York Times, but also PBS.

Pres. HUGO CHAVEZ: [subtitles] What does "PBS" mean?

JUAN FORERO: [subtitles] It’s public television in the United States.

Pres. HUGO CHAVEZ: [subtitles] Do you broadcast from Iraq? You don’t reach that far?

JUAN FORERO: [subtitles] Well, maybe soon.

Pres. HUGO CHAVEZ: [subtitles] You weren’t 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 it’s 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: There’s something about Chavez that is both hopeful and frustrating. He’s made a lot of promises and there’s a lot expected of him, but at the same time, it’s 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 Tortoza’s 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 musical.


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 wouldn’t 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 America’s 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.

I’m 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 stairwell.

[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] You’re 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 aren’t available.

ARUN RATH: [voice-over] I’m off to meet their latest star.

My father is from a state just south of here, but I don’t speak a word of Bengali, so I’ve brought along a translator, Nilayan Dutta.

NILAYAN DUTTA: We are now close to Osama bin Laden’s place in Calcutta.

ARUN RATH: Even though he wasn’t the real bin Laden, I couldn’t 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 Muslim.

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 don’t 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 provoke unrest.

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 wasn’t the only thing we had in common. In this jatra, Arun plays an Indian-American journalist who lives in New York.

NILAYAN DUTTA: It’s a great coincidence. Great coincidence.

ARUN RATH: [on camera] Both named Arun. [laughter]

NILAYAN DUTTA: Yeah, both named Arun. [laughter]

ARUN RATH: [voice-over] Arun is one of Calcutta’s 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. It’s an effective way to reach people. And if they don’t like it, they’ll 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, India’s 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 don’t know right from wrong / I only know you, my beautiful beloved / I don’t know right from wrong / Would you ask the ultimate price for love?

ARUN RATH: It’s 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] I’ve been waiting for you since 10:00 o’clock this morning until 5:00 o’clock!

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 world’s most dangerous man.

[voice-over] But we’re lucky. He lets it go and rehearses his lines for us and for his neighbors, who quickly gather.

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 Muslim’s sacred duty. And at the right time, you will strengthen my powerful jihad.


ARUN RATH: Before the performance, we stopped by Arun’s for dinner. But language barriers being what they are, another miscommunication.

ARUN MUKHERJEE: [subtitles] None for me, thank you.

ARUN RATH: When Arun invited us for dinner, I assumed we’d be eating together. I should have known. No actor anywhere in the world would eat before a performance. But sometimes it’s 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.

[ More on the reporter’s 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 we’d been talking, right outside Arun’s 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 Room.

ARUN RATH: [on camera] So we’re here.

[voice-over] This was unlike any Green Room I had ever seen. But while settings may change, backstage tension is universal.

ACTOR: [subtitles] Where’s my gray? What the heck! I’m away one day, and all my stuff is gone?

ATTENDANT: [subtitles] How should I know?

ACTOR: [subtitles] You’re in charge of supplies. Who else am I supposed to ask?

ATTENDANT: [subtitles] So I’m to open each box and check? I don’t 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 that’s 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 can’t do my make-up like this, you guys.

ARUN RATH: It wouldn’t be the theater without a demanding star.

ARUN MUKHERJEE: [subtitles] Hey Raju, could you see about that fan, please?

ATTENDANT: [subtitles] I went there. They don’t have one. Khoka went out to get it.

ATTENDANT: [subtitles] What about that fan there?

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 electrician’s nightmare, but probably a sound archivist’s dream. It looks like it’s probably still using vacuum tubes. I’d be terrified to touch any of it. Got about eight or ten microphones dangling from the stage. Speakers also. I’m very curious to see how this PA system works.

[voice-over] It’s close to midnight, and the musicians start to play. They won’t stop for another three-and-a-half hours. To the thousands who filled the streets, the late hour didn’t seem to matter, even to the many children in the crowd.

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 didn’t 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. He’s 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, Bush’s 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 the streets.

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 America’s policies after 9/11 that he abruptly abandons his career and becomes an anti-war activist.

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 Laden’s terrorism. And what’s 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] I’ve 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 I’ve 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. It’s not just radical Muslims this message resonates with, but with Hindus here in Calcutta.

[on camera] What about his means, the fact that he’s 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 isn’t an innocent party. They created bin Laden, and they’ll 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] I’m just an actor. I can be a singing and dancing villain. I can be anything!

ARUN RATH: Of course, for any cast, it’s hard to argue with full houses and enthusiastic applause. And like any actor, Amit already savors the next role he wants to play, Saddam Hussein.

NILAYAN DUTTA: He was asking, "How did you like my acting?"


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 40.

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 world’s leading AIDS researchers. I’ve 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.: It’s sort of like you see a fire in the next town, and you’re 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. He’s 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 we’re real--

DAVID HO: Real virus hunters. Hi. We’re 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 travel.

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, it’s 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.

[ Read the interview with the reporter]

With its dense population and year-round subtropical climate, it’s 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 nephew’s wedding in Hong Kong. He came here to the Metropole Hotel. He didn’t 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 victim’s lungs. David Ho’s 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 12.

RENATA SIMONE: [on camera] That’s you.


RENATA SIMONE: [voice-over] A day after they began, David Ho and Linqi check the results. They’re 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. It’s too hard to read right now.

It’s still a little too early to read the results. Usually, it takes around 48 hours.

RENATA SIMONE: The results are frustrating.

DAVID HO: Boy, it’s damn slow. I think I was misled by the description in the paper saying culture is wiped out in 24 hours. All right, let’s 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 window.

Mr, TSANG: [subtitles] This is the problem! It’s the toilet. The infected people didn’t 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 virus back.

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 gestures.

The virus attaches to the healthy cell by extending a long molecule from its surface. David Ho’s 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: That’s called motivation. [laughter]

LEO POON: And we would like to save the world.

LINQI ZHANG: Let’s go!

RICHARD KAO: Let’s 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. I’m 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. We’ve got a CPE with definitely some-- some effect.

LINQI ZHANG: We’ve got to check what region it is.

LEO POON: Hard to judge this one.

RENATA SIMONE: They check and recheck.

LEO POON: That’s it! Wow! That’s it!

LINQI ZHANG: OK, so what is that?

LEO POON: Excellent. Something interesting. Based on this, it seems that it’s 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-- that’s very encouraging news. And enjoy your meeting. That’s 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: It’s very natural for people to fear when they know there’s no treatment, no vaccine. Very natural. But in Chinese there’s 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 Mother’s Day! I have some good news. The experiment succeeded! This is my Mother’s Day gift for you.

RENATA SIMONE: By the time David Ho returns, it’s after midnight.

DAVID HO: Hey. Come in.

LINQI ZHANG: Hey, David. Come in. You must be tired, huh?

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, you’d 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 don’t.

LINQI ZHANG: So this could be another big story.

RENATA SIMONE: Tomorrow they’ll 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 it’s 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.










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