What ever happened to SARS? Three years have passed since severe acute respiratory syndrome has been detected in a human — and it has been more than four years since the deadly strain arose. Most of us remember the news of 2003, when the brand-new disease arose in China and somehow traveled to Toronto. Across the world it killed nearly 800 people, caused public health communities to reassess everything, and laid waste to economies (such as that of the poultry, tourist, and travel industries, for example).
As the months and years roll along, scientists increasingly believe that the “coronavirus” that created the fatal strain of SARS may be gone for good. When the last of the SARS cases finished that entire viral strain most likely was destroyed. Permanently. But how, exactly, could this happen? Don’t pathogens keep circling the world, hiding in the cells of hosts such as birds and animals?
To figure out the end of SARS, you have to retreat back to the beginning. Somewhere in China, there was a precursor coronavirus that likely lived in bats. It passed to civet cats, which are two-foot-long nocturnal animals that aren’t felines so much as they are mongooses. In autumn 2002, these viruses infected individuals in China who either ate civet cats or handled them. At this point there was little risk of the virus’ spread to people.
But, within its constant mutations, the virus developed an ability to pass from person to person. From then on, it was known as the disease SARS. Global health experts feared this new illness would be a permanent fixture in the world, alongside such scourges as influenza and measles. But a great fight — led by the World Health Organization — in many countries broke the virus’s transmission. It couldn’t leap any more, as all infected people were successfully isolated.
This moment is perhaps the end of that deadly SARS virus. It materialized through a chain of events and it disappeared through another. Other SARS-like viruses are out there, and they have been, to this day, found in bats and civet cats. Nothing has triggered another illness, yet. The only problems they have caused are cases of mild, cold-like symptoms.
It could be that the SARS strain of 2002-2003 was an unusual event, occurring rarely. Some experts believe that few coronavirus strains out there could mutate randomly in such a way to become as dangerous as the fatal strain. Every piece of the puzzle would have fall just right. That’s not to say it won’t, but in the era of fear-mongering newscasts about dangerous viruses, this story appears to provide a silver lining to the cloud that drifted four years ago.