How SARS terrified the world in 2003, infecting more than 8,000 people and killing 774

A man wearing a surgical mask in a Hong Kong street Friday, May 2, 2003, because of the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, stops to look at a magazine poster that has SARS as its cover story.

  • In the first half of 2003, a deadly disease known as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome spread from China into 28 other countries.
  • SARS infected a little more than 8,000 people, and killed 774 people. The majority of these cases were in Asia.
  • The disease is back on people's minds as a new novel coronavirus spreads across the globe. COVID-19 has already killed more than 2,000 people - more than the total number who died from SARS.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

SARS was stopped, but it wasn't easy.

Over about nine months, from late 2002 until July 2003, a deadly disease known as severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, spread from China into 29 countries. It infected 8,096 people, and killed 774, mostly in Asia.
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Unlike HIV/AIDS, which took 20 years to cover the globe, or Ebola, which reared its head sporadically, SARS was a swift and terrifying pandemic.

One of the main reasons it had such a large and quick impact was that China failed to notify the World Health Organization until February 2003, several months after the SARS virus was first discovered.

Later, China downplayed the number of SARS patients in Beijing. The real number was 10 times as much as previously disclosed. It wasn't until a prominent local doctor wrote to the international media that the real number came to light.
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After the international embarrassment, thousands of people were quarantined in homes or hospitals, schools were closed, borders were monitored, and the pandemic was taken seriously.

SARS is relevant now, 17 years later, as the world faces another deadly virus - the novel coronavirus now called COVID-19, which has infected at least 75,000 people, and killed more than 2,100. Here's how SARS seemingly came from out of nowhere, and ended up killing hundreds of people in seven months.
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In 2003, masks became a symbol of terror as the world dealt with its first pandemic of the 21st Century — SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome.

In 2003, masks became a symbol of terror as the world dealt with its first pandemic of the 21st Century — SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome.

Source: WHO

It began with a businessman who fell ill in Foshan, China. He had pneumonia-like symptoms, but the people who treated him quickly fell sick, too.

It began with a businessman who fell ill in Foshan, China. He had pneumonia-like symptoms, but the people who treated him quickly fell sick, too.

Sources: The New York Times, The Atlantic

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It's thought that he caught the SARS virus from a wet market in southern Guangdong Province.

It's thought that he caught the SARS virus from a wet market in southern Guangdong Province.

Source: Business Insider

By February 9, 305 people had contracted SARS in the region, and five people had died from it.

By February 9, 305 people had contracted SARS in the region, and five people had died from it.

Sources: New Scientist, CNN

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Doctors had never seen the virus before. What was confusing and prompted doubts was that, at the beginning, SARS looked like pneumonia.

Doctors had never seen the virus before. What was confusing and prompted doubts was that, at the beginning, SARS looked like pneumonia.

Source: History.com

The symptoms were similar — coughing, fever, body aches, difficulty breathing, fatigue. SARS spread through the air, by coughing or sneezing.

The symptoms were similar — coughing, fever, body aches, difficulty breathing, fatigue. SARS spread through the air, by coughing or sneezing.

Sources: The New York Times, The New York Times

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It was also, as CNN described, a "super spreader," meaning one person could infect many others. And, worryingly, there was no known cure.

It was also, as CNN described, a "super spreader," meaning one person could infect many others. And, worryingly, there was no known cure.

Source: CNN

To the world, it seemed like SARS came out of nowhere, but that wasn't entirely true. China had an information blackout, and waited until February to disclose cases of SARS to the World Health Organization. In the coming months, China would be criticized for failing to be open about the virus.

To the world, it seemed like SARS came out of nowhere, but that wasn't entirely true. China had an information blackout, and waited until February to disclose cases of SARS to the World Health Organization. In the coming months, China would be criticized for failing to be open about the virus.

Source: The New York Times

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There were a number of reasons for the delay. But the economy was a major one. Cholera in the early 1990s cost Peru $770 million, while India lost about $1 billion in tourism when it had a bout of the plague. China didn't want its economy to take a hit.

There were a number of reasons for the delay. But the economy was a major one. Cholera in the early 1990s cost Peru $770 million, while India lost about $1 billion in tourism when it had a bout of the plague. China didn't want its economy to take a hit.

Sources: The New York Times, Washington Post

In late February, an unusual case in Vietnam stumped a local doctor. He had heard about the outbreak in China, but wasn't sure he was dealing with the same thing. Then, 10 staff members contracted the virus, and his "doubts would balloon into dread," the Wall Street Journal wrote.

In late February, an unusual case in Vietnam stumped a local doctor. He had heard about the outbreak in China, but wasn't sure he was dealing with the same thing. Then, 10 staff members contracted the virus, and his "doubts would balloon into dread," the Wall Street Journal wrote.

Source: WSJ

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On February 21, SARS went global, after an infected doctor working in Guangdong province checked into Hong Kong's Metropole Hotel. The virus spread to 16 other guests, who then dispersed around the world. Room 911, where he stayed, became a museum after the outbreak, and the building was renamed Room 911.

On February 21, SARS went global, after an infected doctor working in Guangdong province checked into Hong Kong's Metropole Hotel. The virus spread to 16 other guests, who then dispersed around the world. Room 911, where he stayed, became a museum after the outbreak, and the building was renamed Room 911.

Sources: WHO, History.com

Having SARS in an international hub like Hong Kong was an infectious disease expert's "worst nightmare," The New York Times wrote at the time.

Having SARS in an international hub like Hong Kong was an infectious disease expert's "worst nightmare," The New York Times wrote at the time.

Sources: The New York Times

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International travel made it difficult to contain SARS. Infected people could get through customs, and into another country, before they presented symptoms of the virus.

International travel made it difficult to contain SARS. Infected people could get through customs, and into another country, before they presented symptoms of the virus.

Source: The New York Times

On March 15, SARS was finally taken seriously. The WHO labeled it a worldwide health threat, describing it as an unnamed virus spreading through Asia. There were concerns it could be as serious and deadly as the influenza pandemic of 1918-19.

On March 15, SARS was finally taken seriously. The WHO labeled it a worldwide health threat, describing it as an unnamed virus spreading through Asia. There were concerns it could be as serious and deadly as the influenza pandemic of 1918-19.

Sources: The New York Times, The Guardian, The New York Times, The New York Times

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By April, SARS had spread from China to 25 other countries, including Canada, Hong Kong, and India, infecting nearly 3,500 people and killing 182.

By April, SARS had spread from China to 25 other countries, including Canada, Hong Kong, and India, infecting nearly 3,500 people and killing 182.

Source: The New York Times

Yet it still wasn't clear, according to The New York Times, whether it would turn into "a global wildfire, or cool down."

Yet it still wasn't clear, according to The New York Times, whether it would turn into "a global wildfire, or cool down."

Source: The New York Times

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A clearer picture of the virus began to emerge in April when whistleblower Jiang Yanyong, a prominent doctor in Beijing, sent a letter to international media, informing them that at least 100 people were being treated for SARS in Beijing.

A clearer picture of the virus began to emerge in April when whistleblower Jiang Yanyong, a prominent doctor in Beijing, sent a letter to international media, informing them that at least 100 people were being treated for SARS in Beijing.

Source: The New York Times

On April 20, the Chinese government admitted there were 10 times as many SARS cases as reported in Beijing — 339 cases, rather than 37. To make amends, China's health minister and the mayor of Beijing were both dismissed.

On April 20, the Chinese government admitted there were 10 times as many SARS cases as reported in Beijing — 339 cases, rather than 37. To make amends, China's health minister and the mayor of Beijing were both dismissed.

Sources: The Guardian, Washington Post

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The announcement caused panic. Thousands left Beijing, just a day after the WHO advised against traveling to Beijing or Shanxi province.

The announcement caused panic. Thousands left Beijing, just a day after the WHO advised against traveling to Beijing or Shanxi province.

Source: Washington Post

One Beijing resident named Shi Chuanquan told The New York Times, "This virus is invisible and untouchable, which makes it really scary."

One Beijing resident named Shi Chuanquan told The New York Times, "This virus is invisible and untouchable, which makes it really scary."

Source: The New York Times

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Schools were closed down. More than 1.7 million students in Beijing were sent home.

Schools were closed down. More than 1.7 million students in Beijing were sent home.

Sources: The Guardian, Washington Post

Measures at airports increased, including random temperature checks.

Measures at airports increased, including random temperature checks.

Source: Japan Times

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Because SARS was spread through coughing and sneezing, surfaces like the insides of planes were wiped down. Beijing's council also closed public spaces like swimming pools and movie theaters, where the virus could easily spread.

Because SARS was spread through coughing and sneezing, surfaces like the insides of planes were wiped down. Beijing's council also closed public spaces like swimming pools and movie theaters, where the virus could easily spread.

Sources: WHO, The New York Times

Quarantines became a staple. In Beijing, crime-scene tape was wrapped around an entire block, keeping 2,000 health employees contained and cut off.

Quarantines became a staple. In Beijing, crime-scene tape was wrapped around an entire block, keeping 2,000 health employees contained and cut off.

Source: The New York Times

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People stocked up on basic household goods like cooking oil and rice, as well as masks.

People stocked up on basic household goods like cooking oil and rice, as well as masks.

Source: The New York Times

Even though Beijing had about 14 million people, meaning the number of infected people was comparably low, it was taken seriously, and the impact was felt everywhere.

Even though Beijing had about 14 million people, meaning the number of infected people was comparably low, it was taken seriously, and the impact was felt everywhere.

Source: The New York Times

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The news continued to be grim. In Hong Kong, SARS spread through an apartment building by way of bathroom drainpipes. According to the Washington Post, it was a "disturbing new confirmation of the microbe's versatility."

The news continued to be grim. In Hong Kong, SARS spread through an apartment building by way of bathroom drainpipes. According to the Washington Post, it was a "disturbing new confirmation of the microbe's versatility."

Source: Washington Post

Quarantines popped up in other countries. Here, a nurse talks to her relatives through a webcam in Taiwan in late April. Taiwan was the third worst hit country, with 83 deaths.

Quarantines popped up in other countries. Here, a nurse talks to her relatives through a webcam in Taiwan in late April. Taiwan was the third worst hit country, with 83 deaths.

Source: CNN

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Patrick Dixon, an expert on global trends, told The Guardian that unless SARS mutated into a less serious virus, "the only hope we have is to mount an immediate aggressive global response at the highest levels against SARS, something we've not yet seen."

Patrick Dixon, an expert on global trends, told The Guardian that unless SARS mutated into a less serious virus, "the only hope we have is to mount an immediate aggressive global response at the highest levels against SARS, something we've not yet seen."

Source: The Guardian

Also in April, scientists cracked the genetic code of SARS. With that in hand, drugs and vaccines could be made. Yet it wouldn't be for another 20 months before a vaccine was ready to be used by humans.

Also in April, scientists cracked the genetic code of SARS. With that in hand, drugs and vaccines could be made. Yet it wouldn't be for another 20 months before a vaccine was ready to be used by humans.

Sources: New Scientist, The New York Times

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Headlines around the world continued to question how bad SARS would get. Newsweek's cover read, "SARS Can it be stopped?"

Headlines around the world continued to question how bad SARS would get. Newsweek's cover read, "SARS Can it be stopped?"

On May 15, the Chinese government increased measures to beat SARS. It threatened to execute anyone who intentionally broke quarantine. About 11,000 people were confined to their homes or hospitals.

On May 15, the Chinese government increased measures to beat SARS. It threatened to execute anyone who intentionally broke quarantine. About 11,000 people were confined to their homes or hospitals.

Source: Los Angeles Times, Irish Times, The New York Times

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In Singapore, those who were suspected of being infected with SARS were monitored at home. Electronic bracelets alerted the police if they tried to leave.

In Singapore, those who were suspected of being infected with SARS were monitored at home. Electronic bracelets alerted the police if they tried to leave.

Sources: The New York Times, CNN

All of the prohibitive measures began to pay off. In June, SARS started to slow down. WHO Director General Gro Harlem Brundtland said, "We have seen SARS stopped dead in its tracks."

All of the prohibitive measures began to pay off. In June, SARS started to slow down. WHO Director General Gro Harlem Brundtland said, "We have seen SARS stopped dead in its tracks."

Source: CNN

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By early July, the WHO declared the outbreak was contained. In total, more than 8,000 people were infected and 774 died. It was stopped by isolating cases, good hygiene practices, as well as summer warmth and humidity.

By early July, the WHO declared the outbreak was contained. In total, more than 8,000 people were infected and 774 died. It was stopped by isolating cases, good hygiene practices, as well as summer warmth and humidity.

Sources: The New York Times, CNN

Of those who died, China had 349 deaths out of its 5,327 cases.

Of those who died, China had 349 deaths out of its 5,327 cases.

Source: History.com

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In the United States, only eight people were infected, and no one died. This was partly due to the country being in a heightened state of alert after September 11, and the anthrax postal attacks. Another reason, according to The New York Times, was "sheer good luck."

In the United States, only eight people were infected, and no one died. This was partly due to the country being in a heightened state of alert after September 11, and the anthrax postal attacks. Another reason, according to The New York Times, was "sheer good luck."

Sources: WHO, The New York Times, CDC

Toronto, Canada, wasn't so lucky. The city was declared SARS-free in May, but later cases emerged. In the end, 375 people were infected and 44 people died. Up to 80% of small Asian-owned businesses' income was estimated to be lost because of racist boycotting.

 Toronto, Canada, wasn't so lucky. The city was declared SARS-free in May, but later cases emerged. In the end, 375 people were infected and 44 people died. Up to 80% of small Asian-owned businesses' income was estimated to be lost because of racist boycotting.

Sources: The New York Times, Washington Post, CNN

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But in relative terms, Hong Kong got it the worst. Along with a recession due to the city coming to a standstill, 1,755 people were infected, and 299 people died.

But in relative terms, Hong Kong got it the worst. Along with a recession due to the city coming to a standstill, 1,755 people were infected, and 299 people died.

Source: South China Morning Post

Since 2004, there have been no reported cases of SARS.

Since 2004, there have been no reported cases of SARS.

Sources: The New York Times, CDC, BBC

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The final death toll was relatively low, considering the thousands who die from influenza every year. Yet SARS terrified the world — it was invisible, unknown, and the first pandemic of the globalized world.

The final death toll was relatively low, considering the thousands who die from influenza every year. Yet SARS terrified the world — it was invisible, unknown, and the first pandemic of the globalized world.

Sources: The New York Times, CDC, BBC