Originally written by Professor David L Heymann for Chatham House.
This week marks the 10th anniversary of the beginning of the SARS outbreak, with the first known case of a strange type of pneumonia being recorded in the Guangdong Province of China on 16 November 2002. The elimination of SARS from human populations is one of the most significant international public health victories in recent times, and its legacy is evident.
The case in Guangdong Province, and sporadic others that were later discovered to have occurred around the same time in the same location, did not come to light until 10 February 2003, following a sharp rise in the number of infections. About a month later, after mounting reports of spread among hospital staff in Hong Kong and Vietnam, it became apparent that this constituted a new contagious disease of international concern. This prompted the World Health Organization (WHO) to sound the alarm. Within days it was clear the disease was spreading along major airline routes and it went on to infect nearly 8,500 people in 30 countries and kill 916.
It was rapidly contained within less than four months of the initial alert, as a result of an unprecedented level of international cooperation designed to prevent it from becoming established in people, as HIV/AIDS had done during the 20th century. A decade after its abrupt and deadly arrival, the lessons of SARS are clear.
The power of global collaboration
Firstly, the SARS experience clearly illustrated the value of and success that can be achieved through global cooperation. It was the first emerging disease outbreak to be the focus of a major global containment effort, and provided a valuable template for responding to similar threats in the future. This is a major legacy of SARS.