By Bruce Einhorn It had many of the markings of a big product launch for a high-tech company or perhaps a surprise campaign stop by a major political candidate. The faxed invitation promised a blockbuster news conference -- the word "Breakthrough" was featured in bold letters. A special press bus would shuttle reporters to the event.
So I went, though I chose to take a taxi, following the lead of many Hong Kong residents who are avoiding mass transit these days. I arrived at the University of Hong Kong, where researchers -- including one who, like many reporters, wore a surgical mask -- announced that they had succeeded in identifying the cause of the killer disease that is causing near panic as it spreads slowly around the world (see BW Online, 3/24/03, "Hong Kong's Unhealthy Identity Crisis"). The researchers presented a slide show of a star-shaped microbe they called a coronavirus. "We have a floodlight. We can see and identify the virus," said Professor S.K. Lam, speaking through his surgical mask. "It will no longer remain in the dark."
For alarmed residents of this city, this certainly sounded like welcome news. The epidemic of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) has hospitalized more than 500 people (60 of whom have recovered and been discharged), killed 13, closed down elementary school for 1 million children, and prompted a frantic hunt by the city's 7 million residents to find surgical masks, alcohol swabs, and other low-tech means of protection from the mystery microbes. On the morning of Mar. 31, the government announced that it was forbidding residents of one housing block to leave their homes after more than 100 people in the building came down with the illness.
FINDING THE CULPRIT. Rival researchers at the Chinese University of Hong Kong earlier had fingered a different virus as the cause of the mysterious disease. But Lam and his two colleagues were eager to establish that their team's findings were more legit. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention confirmed the University of Hong Kong's findings, the Hong Kong researchers said. "We know what exactly this virus is," said Professor Malik Perris, another researcher. (Unlike Lam, Perris went maskless.) "More importantly, these findings have been confirmed independently."
As he spoke, close-up pictures of the virus appeared on screens to his right and left. "These little dots you see, these are the virus particles coming out of the cell in the thousands," he explained. "This is the new virus that is responsible for this disease."
Perris said identifying the virus will allow doctors to test for it and could eventually lead to a treatment -- which is really the vital first step in stopping the near-panic that has gripped Hong Kong since the "index patient," an ailing doctor from Guangdong province across the border, infected a handful of people in a Kowloon hotel in February.
A NAME OF ITS OWN. "Finding the virus allows us to develop diagnostic tests that can be done in a few hours," Perris said. "We can get a result within eight hours of getting the specimen." Identifying the virus, he added, "allows us to go forward in confidence in diagnostic tests, antiviral treatments, and, eventually, a vaccine."
On the same day, Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa announced the quarantine of 1,000 people connected to victims of the illness, which the government has been loath to call SARS, since Hong Kong is called a Special Administrative Region of China -- SAR for short. Government officials have therefore been calling the disease atypical pneumonia, or SRS -- anything but SARS. "It's now coronavirus pneumonia," said Lam. "We now no longer need to call this SARS."
Then, these unsettling details from Perris: The virus seems capable of surviving only a few hours outside the body. "That means transmission is by droplets over short distances," he said. "Probably the most important route of transmission is what is called indirect contact." Mask or no mask, if you touch an elevator button that has the virus, he said, you can infect yourself if you touch your eyes, nose, or mouth before washing your hands.
PRECIOUS WIPES. To push home their point, the researchers borrowed another marketing tool. They passed around boxes filled with packets of alcohol wipes -- the same ones Hong Kong residents are clamoring to get their hands on. Many drugstores have sold out their stocks -- just as they've done with their supplies of bottled rubbing alcohol.
"We know that this [virus] is easily killed through the use of alcohol," the doctor explained. Other reporters took one or two of the alcohol wipes. I grabbed a handful. Einhorn covers technology from Hong Kong for BusinessWeek. Follow his weekly Online Asia column, only on BusinessWeek Online