The result of SARS hysteria

Issue: BCMJ, vol. 45 , No. 5 , June 2003 , Pages 208 Editorials

I grew up in Vancouver during the polio epidemic of the late 1940s and early 1950s and I can clearly recall the fear my parents exhibited whenever I asked if I could go to the neighborhood outdoor swimming pool when I was around 8 or 9 years old. There had been a number of children and young adults stricken with polio in my community, and everyone seemed to think you got it from swimming pool water. For most of the summer our little park and wading pool looked like one of Saddam’s palace gardens during a coalition bombing run. Looking back on it now, it probably would have been the safest place to be that summer because there was no one else there.

Various attempts by public health authorities to contain the polio epidemic seemed to have little impact on the rate of contagion until Drs Salk and Sabin developed the vaccine that cut short the development of iron lung technology. The refinement of alternate host attenuation by Drs Salk and Sabin laid the groundwork for whole new vaccine technologies and really was the spark that began the rapid, worldwide expansion of the biotechnology industry. In the intervening 50-odd years, public demand and the promise of enormous worldwide profits has ensured the ongoing development and expansion of huge biotechnology companies and conglomerates. Most of these multinationals have appropriately proliferated and profited as a result of a public demand driven by the very real fear of contagion.

When compared to other pandemics such as polio or the 1918 influenza outbreak, SARS has seemed a bit more like a tempest in a teapot than a real pandemic in waiting. However, my original training in microbiology likely exaggerated my usual, almost obsessive need for complacency. So I phoned the BCCDC and talked with Dr Perry Kendall about the level of hysteria that seemed so pervasive everywhere but in the health care sector. Dr Kendall stated that the tempest actually is beginning to look like a medium-sized one in a very big teapot, but that the virus is likely coming under reasonable containment in the world’s recognized endemic centres. He feels that SARS will likely not disappear, even with mutation. However, he feels it will probably become a regular seasonal visitor like the influenza virus, and the expected vaccine in the next year or so will likely be available for first responders and the most vulnerable in our communities just like the yearly influenza vaccine.

Prior to speaking with Dr Kendall, however, I had read a recent editorial in the National Post that nicely put things into a proper medical perspective for me. The author made a number of comparisons for the reader that clarified just how unlikely contagion and death from SARS was for any traveler en route to Canada (Toronto). In fact, a person is two times more likely to die from strangulation secondary to becoming entangled in a hotel bed sheet than to die from SARS while in Toronto. (Quite a useful statistic to use when speaking with hysterical Air Canada flight crews.)

There is a social upside to the media-driven SARS hysteria, however, in that there is a huge fear/profit factor now driving the search for and production of a SARS vaccine. Whenever those two drivers get together the profit side of the equation becomes enormously appealing, and I suspect that a vaccine will be produced quite quickly. BC scientists claim to be very close to producing a usable vaccine. (I suspect the BC group had the quick start because of the Michael Smith Genome group’s successful decoding of the corona virus’s genome sequence.) In fact, if a safe, stable, effective universal vaccine can be quickly produced (which is highly likely), then besides the several billion dollars of immediate profits, there is an even higher likelihood for the spin-off of more effective antiviral pharmaceuticals and the eventual production of vaccines for the common cold. Where do I buy the stock?


James A. Wilson, MD. The result of SARS hysteria. BCMJ, Vol. 45, No. 5, June, 2003, Page(s) 208 - Editorials.

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