New Coronavirus Makes Hong Kong Reflect On Lessons Learned From SARS : Goats and Soda As Hong Kong deals with the new coronavirus, citizens and scientists recall the SARS outbreak 17 years ago — and what it took to defeat the disease.
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How Hong Kong Beat SARS: Lessons Learned

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How Hong Kong Beat SARS: Lessons Learned

How Hong Kong Beat SARS: Lessons Learned

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The many places made anxious by the spread of the coronavirus include Hong Kong. The city so far has 21 cases - not so many compared to mainland China, but residents are on edge because many of them lived through the devastating SARS outbreak back in 2003. In that year, Hong Kong suffered 299 deaths from SARS, the most anywhere outside of mainland China. It crippled the city's economy, and the concern now is that this latest outbreak might do the same. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports from Hong Kong.

(SOUND OF SIREN)

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: And so right now we're standing outside what was, at that point in time, during the SARS outbreak, the Metropole Hotel, and that was one of the first places that SARS came into Hong Kong. A doctor came in, he actually checked into room 911 and then fell sick while he was at the hotel. He infected more than a dozen people there. They ended up leaving the hotel and carrying that virus around the world. It was one of the seminal moments in the SARS outbreak.

(SOUND OF SIREN)

BEAUBIEN: Catherine Chim, an accountant who lives in the neighborhood, says during SARS back in 2003, at least the stores weren't running out of masks and other supplies like they are now.

CATHERINE CHIM: Now it seems like really no more supplies. I need to count how many masks I still have on hand because I need to go to work. Every day at least you need to use one. But now I just have enough for only one week. I cannot get any more masks at this moment.

BEAUBIEN: Schools are closed for at least the next month. Her two kids are stuck at home, and she doesn't have additional masks to give them. Chim is frustrated that the border with mainland China remains open, and she's critical of the city's response to this new outbreak.

CHIM: I think it is very slow, and the response is nonsense. How come they can still let the people who have the disease go inside Hong Kong?

BEAUBIEN: Nearly everyone on the street in Hong Kong now wears masks, despite many public health experts saying they may not be effective. Chim says it's scary that there could be people on the street next to her who are infected. And as if to underscore her point, a man walks by in a full gas mask with ventilators sticking out from each cheek.

CHIM: You do not know if the one next to you is a virus carrier or not. So we just can protect ourselves, but they still let the disease go inside. It's horrible.

BEAUBIEN: Dr. Albert Wong, a physician at the Tuen Mun public hospital, says Hong Kong has had 17 years since SARS to prepare for the next outbreak.

ALBERT WONG: We cannot let what happened 17 years ago happen again.

BEAUBIEN: A doctor at his hospital was one of the casualties from SARS.

WONG: I have a feeling that this is still a scar that still hasn't healed yet. It still hurts when it is touched, and it is particularly painful that the same old mistakes are made again.

BEAUBIEN: Wong and other medical professionals have been calling since early January for Hong Kong to shut down its border with mainland China, but that still hasn't happened. In some ways, however, Hong Kong is better prepared today compared to 17 years ago. Labs here were quickly able to start running diagnostic tests to screen for the virus.

BEN COWLING: We have a lot of capacity here because in Hong Kong, after the SARS epidemic, the government deliberately invested heavily in infectious disease research capacity.

BEAUBIEN: Ben Cowling, an infectious disease professor at the University of Hong Kong, says the research community in the city is working around the clock on this new coronavirus.

COWLING: Whether it's in the laboratory, in the hospitals or, like me, in the office, looking at the data, trying to figure out how easily it's spreading, what are the dynamics of spread.

BEAUBIEN: During SARS, much of the spread was happening in hospitals. Once that became clear, public health officials put in place rigid infection control measures in medical settings, and the outbreaks in Hong Kong, China, Toronto and elsewhere were brought under control. Cowling says transmission of this new coronavirus is quite different from SARS.

COWLING: We've seen a small number of infections of health care workers but nothing like SARS, where it was one-third of the cases were health care workers. For the new coronavirus, it's a much smaller fraction in hospitals and probably most transmission occurring in the general community, and that's much, much more difficult for public health measures to deal with.

BEAUBIEN: Cowling and his colleagues are trying to look at how effective different kinds of control measures have been working in China to try to come up with ways to overcome this outbreak in Hong Kong and the rest of the world. Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Hong Kong.

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