A narrow escape—at least this time

Leigh MacMillan, Ph.D.
Published: April, 2004

Mark Denison, M.D., seems to be engulfed in a projected image of cells infected with a mouse coronavirus.
Photo illustration by Dean Dixon
For Julia, the 13-year-old daughter of Mark Denison, M.D., SARS was a passing fancy. In February 2003, before the world confronted a strange new disease—Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome—she asked her Dad why he didn’t work on an important virus. After all, he’d been studying a coronavirus for nearly 20 years, and who had ever heard of coronaviruses?

Within a month, the world had heard: a new coronavirus was causing SARS. Denison, one of a handful of scientists who had studied the biology of this virus family, became a sought-after source of information for both public health officials and the media. Julia enjoyed that her Dad finally was working on something important, but advised him that he was getting “kind of full of himself,” he recalls.

By the fall, SARS was gone. An unprecedented global public health response had halted the virus’ spread, continuing surveillance efforts were in place to quickly spot and address new cases of SARS, and scientists were searching for effective treatments and pursuing vaccine strategies. For Denison, professor of Pediatrics and Microbiology & Immunology at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, the experience was an unsettling near miss.

SARS, he says, represented “potentially the worst pandemic virus in the last 100 years. When you look at the overall severity and mortality rate of SARS and the rapidity of its spread, I’d say the bomb had started going off.”

A well-organized international public health response defused the crisis. In July—just four months after the World Health Organization first issued global alerts about SARS—WHO announced that the last chain of human transmission of SARS had been broken, ending the epidemic. The final tally: 8,422 cases of SARS and 916 deaths.

Even though its spread was stopped, SARS is still around. Swift isolation of this year’s few victims and their contacts has quelled the virus—so far, there has been no transmission to contacts and the SARS patients have all recovered. But increased vigilance must continue, Denison says. SARS was a primer for the future’s lurking viral threats: from it, we learned that global public health and rapid intervention mechanisms must be in place.

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