Big Picture News, Informed Analysis

Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Former National Post & Toronto Star columnist, past vice president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

So You Thinks SARS Was No Big Deal (Part 1)

Canada was the only country outside Asia in which people died from the SARS coronavirus. A doctor and two nurses were among its victims. All three were in their 50s.

from the SARS Commission executive summary; click to enlarge

In 2003, Canada became a SARS hotspot. We were the only country outside the Far East in which people died from that previously unknown coronavirus.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the United States had 27 non-fatal cases, Germany had 9, Australia 6, and Sweden 5.

The WHO says Canada had 251 cases. But a voluminous 2006 SARS Commission report, written by Superior Court Justice Archie Campbell, cites 375 cases, including 44 deaths.

I lived in downtown Toronto at the time, and don’t remember SARS affecting my life. But that’s because I wasn’t a first responder, didn’t work in health care, and no one in my family required medical attention during those months.

While I slept peacefully, a tragedy was unfolding within my city’s medical system. It began when a Canadian woman returned from a trip that had included an overnight stay in a Hong Kong hotel. A doctor from China’s Guangdong province, in Hong Kong for his nephew’s wedding, was staying on the same floor of that hotel. Having treated patients with a mysterious respiratory condition back home, he himself had become infectious. Inadvertently, that doctor triggered a global SARS outbreak.

Before the Canadian woman succumbed to the disease, her son had caught the virus. Canada’s SARS Commission report tells us:

he waited in a crowded emergency ward for over 16 hours. During these hours he transmitted SARS to two other patients, sparking a chain of infection that spread through the Scarborough Grace Hospital, then to other hospitals…and ultimately killed 44 and sickened more than 330 others.

The son died shortly afterward, as did the two people infected in the emergency ward, plus one of their wives. The report contains a flow chart (see the top of this post), illustrating that 2 doctors, 14 nurses, 5 technicians, 5 hospital clerks, and 2 members of the housekeeping staff were subsequently infected. So was a fireman, 3 paramedics, other emergency room patients, as well as patients in the coronary care unit (CCU) who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Some of these people took the virus home, and infected their own families.

An emergency was declared. Hospital admissions were frozen, as were transfers between hospitals. Surgeries and cancer treatments were postponed. Before it was over, a doctor and two nurses died. All three had been in their 50s.

Because Toronto’s SARS outbreak primarily affected hospitals, the rest of us don’t appreciate how desperate things became. Nor do we understand how much worse it could have been.

In the words of the SARS commission report:

We should care about SARS because it was a wake-up call and it holds the lessons we must learn to protect ourselves against future similar outbreaks…


to be continued…


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  • the World Health Organization appears to have stopped collecting and analyzing SARS data in early 2004.
  • the final volume of Canada’s SARS Commission was published in December 2006. That independent investigation into how SARS was introduced and spread in Ontario (Canada’s most populous province) was led by Justice Archie Campbell. All quotes above are from the 70-page Executive Summary, which can be downloaded here. Volumes 2, 3, 4, and 5 may be accessed here.
  • SARS stands for: Severe Respiratory Syndrome, caused by a coronaavirus
  • the CDC says SARS was contracted by 8,096 people worldwide. Of those, 774 died.
  • as of today, 8 March 2020, more than 111,000 people have contracted SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Nearly 4,000 people have died.
  • Italy added nearly 1,500 COVID-19 cases to its roster yesterday, and more than 1,200 the day before. South Korea has more than 7,000 cases. France and Germany each have more than 1,000 cases. In many other countries, case numbers are in the triple digits and growing fast.


Twenty-First Century Plague: The Story of SARS
Thomas Abraham


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This entry was posted on March 9, 2020 by in health and tagged .
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