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a time when Hong Kong -- usually one of the world's busiest
port cities -- had slowed to a virtual standstill, FRONTLINE/World
reporter/producer Renata Simone arrived on the island to a desolate
airport and a city full of mask-wearing citizens. She'd come
to talk with a team of scientists who were working frantically
to uncover the mysteries behind the newly appeared SARS virus.
Simone's story begins with Dr. David Ho, a world-renowned AIDS researcher on whose work she has been reporting for more than a decade. Dr. Ho has invited Simone to travel to Hong Kong, where an international group of researchers has teamed up at the University of Hong Kong to tackle SARS. In the field of AIDS research, Ho developed a protease inhibitor treatment that keeps AIDS patients healthy for years, and there's hope that a similar mechanism may help with SARS. When Ho, who lives in New York, got the call asking for help, he says he couldn't say no. He compares the situation to that of a fire in the next town, when people are calling for help. "So here we are," he says, "in our fireman outfits."
Of course, these researchers are donning not fire-safe gear, but virus-safe biohazard suits. Simone follows Ho to the lab where he meets with his top researcher LinQi Zhang, who has also come from New York to help. The men joke about being "virus hunters."
Looking for the story behind the epidemic, Simone meets with Hong Kong's public health director, Margaret Chan. Chan points to the port city of Guangzhou on a map. Located at the mouth of the Pearl River, Guangzhou is the capital of Guangdong Province, a densely populated subtropical region where people live and work in close proximity with animals. It was here that SARS first appeared. And Chan says that at peak periods, the Pearl River Delta sees 300,000 crossings per day between Guangzhou and Hong Kong.
So it didn't take long for the virus to travel from Guangdong to Hong Kong, courtesy of a man attending a wedding in late February. The man stayed in the Metropole Hotel, where nine guests picked it up, then took it with them to Singapore, Vietnam and Canada.
The SARS virus is able to attach to a healthy human cell, penetrate it, then replicate itself, progressing cell by cell, causing more and more damage to a victim's lungs. Dr. Ho's idea is to stop this powerful virus by using peptides (pieces of protein) to block the attachment.
Dr. Zhang has designed 12 such peptides, which the team now adds to cell cultures. The next step is incubation -- the experiment takes a full 48 hours, a painful wait for the scientists.
While they wait, Simone visits Amoy Gardens, the locale in Hong Kong hardest hit by SARS. More than 320 residents of the multistory apartment complex got sick from SARS, and 42 died. One occupant explains that first they were all ordered to stay in isolation, then they were sent to quarantine camp while investigators inspected the apartments. What the investigators learned was alarming: They found the virus living in the sewage, then they found leaky, exposed pipes through which the virus escaped, spreading to hundreds of people. This provided clues as to how the disease spreads.
Back at the lab, the team is tense. They joke about saving the world, but there is a tight nervousness behind their smiles. When the time finally comes for the assays to be read, the men diligently record data for two hours. At last they conclude, with a wave of relief, that they have found "something interesting": Five of the 12 peptides have protected the cells from the SARS virus. As excited as they are, it's not until after midnight that Dr. Ho returns from a meeting in Taiwan and Zhang can show the results to him in person. The men stay up late into the night, analyzing results and preparing a public presentation.
The next day Ho announces the results at a press conference. He offers praise for his colleague from New York, Dr. Zhang, and for their Hong Kong colleagues, saying, "It's been a heroic effort, and I would say that some of the heroes are here in front of you."
But Ho also emphasizes that these results represent testing in cells only, not in animals or human patients. And as much as anyone, 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.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong waits hopefully for relief from the SARS virus. And -- with some trepidation -- for the next virus that comes down the Pearl River from the mainland.
Olga, Wong Yee Sheung