SARS: the origin story

New Statesman review of new book on the subject by Karl Taro Greenfeld (of the excellent Speed Tribes):

It is thought that Sars originated in the city of Shenzen, in southern China’s Guangdong province. Early on, Greenfeld swoops in on the aptly named Fang Lin, an illegal immigrant to the city from the countryside, who finds a job handling and slaughtering exotic wild animals for restaurants. “Wild flavour”, as it is known, is an important ingredient in China’s new culture of conspicuous consumption. Thanks to lax regulation, the trade in snakes, camels, otters, monkeys, badgers, bats, pangolins, geese, civets, wild boars – anything that can be trapped or hunted – has become a multimillion-dollar industry. Animals are kept in filthy conditions in the backs of restaurant kitchens, where they are butchered only after diners have made their choice. Fang Lin would emerge after a night’s work covered in the blood and excreta of panicked animals, and would chain-smoke to kill the stench.

It is in this overcrowded, pollution-ridden environment that a virus hops over the species barrier, from civet cats to humans. Sars is born. But it has yet to be identified. The disease that emerges is a terrifyingly contagious mystery fever, developing swiftly to a horrific pneumonia, fatal in many cases, and with a high incidence among healthcare staff.

Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, sensitive and alert after the 1997 outbreak of avian flu, a handful of migratory birds are found dead of the H5N1 influenza. The fear that the new, atypical pneumonia in China, word of which spreads through medical networks, might be the dreaded, mutated avian flu is tested repeatedly, after samples of body effluvia pass perilously and illegally from mainland China to laboratories in Hong Kong. The negative results only add to the rising panic.


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