In 2003, SARS infected more than 8,000 people, and killed 774. Asia was hardest hit, with Hong Kong recording almost 300 deaths. Lam was treated in an isolation ward for three weeks, and considered one of the lucky ones because he was discharged with no further complications.
“I was put in a big room with many other patients,” he recalled. “I heard some coughing at night, crying, and that’s really sad.”
John Nicholls, clinical professor of pathology at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), said the SARS outbreak was brought to an end in July 2003 by good hygiene practices — such as frequent hand-washing — and environmental factors such as high temperature and humidity in the summer months.
“That will be the same for this one,” he said. “My feeling is that this is just going to be like SARS and the world is going to get basically a very bad cold for about five months.”
Despite the drastic measures, some virology experts believe containing the current outbreak might prove to be more difficult than it was to stem SARS.
Nicholls said one problem could be that the new virus appeared to have greater transmissibility than SARS, due the possibility that cases can be transmitted by asymptomatic patients.
The WHO, however, has said that “the main driver of transmission … is symptomatic cases.” The organization said that it was “aware of possible transmission” from asymptomatic individuals in a few instances but believed this to be rare and not a major player in the spread of the virus.
Understanding the virus
In January, Nicholls and his team became the first scientists outside mainland China to reproduce the virus in a laboratory. They have since been studying it to understand how the coronavirus interacts with human tissue around the body, and evaluate the test that diagnoses patients.
“The case fatality rate doesn’t count the milder cases that don’t come to medical attention — and there does seem to be quite a number of those,” Peiris said. “Hopefully, the severity of the disease is much lower than what we believe or what is apparent at the moment, and so the overall outcome may not be as dire as what some people think at this point in time.”
Other medical scholars have given different predictions on how long the outbreak may last.
Gabriel Leung, HKU’s chair professor of public health medicine, was less optimistic and estimated the number of cases to peak around mid-April or mid-May.
The new normal?
Another scenario is that the new coronavirus could become a common global illness, like influenza. That outcome would not be without precedent. H1N1 — a strain of flu responsible for the 2009 flu pandemic has now become a seasonal virus.
“The common cold is caused by two different types of coronaviruses,” Peiris said.
For Lam, the former SARS patient, that scenario would be a failure. He is now the head of Hong Kong SARS Mutual Help Association — a group of SARS survivors which is calling on the Hong Kong government to take tougher measures to end the outbreak.
“We hope that the government can do something more drastic … because most parts of China are considered high risk,” he said.
Lam also called for unity.
“To fight against contagious disease, we must stand together. We must not panic,” he added. “We need to think positive, because one day, the disease will go away.”