When the World Health Organization (who) issued a global alert on
12 March 2003, the especially virulent and ‘‘unexplained atypical pneu-
monia’’ soon to be known as severe acute respiratory syndrome (sars) had
already crossed a dozen national borders.∞ The disease had surfaced in
China’s Guangdong Province during the previous November, and a world-
wide research effort soon identified ‘‘the first novel infectious disease epi-
demic of the 21st century, caused by a brand-new coronavirus.’’≤ Epide-
miologists rushed to identify its source and the means and routes of its
transmission; journalists scrambled to inform the public of the danger; and
medical researchers labored to find a cure or at least produce a vaccine.
Through their accounts of the outbreak, they quickly turned sars into one
of the ‘‘emerging infections’’ that had been identified as a phenomenon two
decades earlier.≥
While the coronavirus was new to medical science, the scenario of disease
emergence was entirely familiar, and it facilitated the worldwide response to
sars. Accounts of prior disease outbreaks helped epidemiologists identify
and respond to the problem. Such accounts also supplied points of reference
for journalists seeking to inform the lay public about the spreading infec-
tion. Even medical researchers relied on their knowledge of similar mi-
crobes as they worked to understand the unfamiliar one. As these prece-
dents allowed experts to make sense of a new situation, they also shaped
what they saw and how they responded. The question simmering beneath
even the most sedate of accounts was whether this disease, with its un-
known origins and alarming mortality rate, might be ‘‘the coming plague’’:
the species-threatening event forecast by scientists and journalists and dra-
matized in fiction and film in the closing decades of the twentieth century.∂
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