Inside the Fight Against an Earlier, Deadly Coronavirus: SARS

February 5, 2020

The outbreak of a new type of coronavirus that was first seen in Wuhan, China is a global public health emergency, the World Health Organization declared on Jan. 30 — the same day the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that the disease had spread from person to person inside the U.S. for the first time.

At the time, the respiratory disease, termed novel coronavirus 2019, had killed a reported 170 people in China and spread to 18 countries, the WHO said. By Feb. 4, those numbers had risen to more than 400 deaths and 23 countries, and some experts were fearful of the potential for a pandemic.

This isn’t the first time the world has experienced a deadly outbreak of a never-before-seen type of coronavirus. In the 2003 FRONTLINE/World report Hong Kong: Chasing the Virus, which is streaming at the top of this story, reporter and producer Renata Simone went inside the effort to fight an earlier outbreak of a coronavirus that also originated in mainland China and spread globally: SARS.

Simone traveled to Hong Kong, usually one of the world’s busiest port cities, which had been brought to a virtual standstill by SARS. The disease had first appeared in China’s Guangdong province. But it spread to the rest of the world from Hong Kong, after a man from Guangdong attended a wedding there and infected nine other guests at the hotel where he was staying.

In Chasing the Virus, Simone shows how Hong Kong grappled with the SARS epidemic, revealing a desolate airport and a city of mask-wearing citizens. She films with an international group of researchers who have teamed up at the University of Hong Kong to tackle the disease, including Dr. David Ho, a world-renowned AIDS researcher who hopes his expertise will be transferable. And she visits a multistory apartment complex that was hit hard by SARS, gleaning clues about how the virus spread.

Meanwhile, in Hong Kong today, some medical workers are now on strike, unhappy with the government’s response to the novel coronavirus 2019 thus far — in particular, the lack of a complete closing of the border with mainland China. The semi-autonomous city announced its first reported death from the virus on Feb. 4.

Stream Hong Kong: Chasing the Virus at the top of this story.

Patrice Taddonio

Patrice Taddonio, Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist, FRONTLINE



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