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CHINA SYNDROME by Karl Taro Greenfeld

CHINA SYNDROME

The True Story of the 21st Century’s First Great Epidemic

By Karl Taro Greenfeld

Pub Date: March 14th, 2006
ISBN: 0-06-058722-9
Publisher: HarperCollins

Epidemic? What epidemic? Former Time Asia editor Greenfeld (Standard Deviations, 2002, etc.) probes the recent SARS outbreak and the Chinese government’s efforts to deny its existence.

“Yoga instructors in Santa Monica and investment bankers in New York have no idea of the role that a few scientists, doctors, and public health officials in Hong Kong play in keeping them hale and hearty,” writes Greenfeld. A horseracing track in Hong Kong marked the debut there of what became known as SARS—Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome—and its management feared that this new disease would result in the deaths of at least a thousand thoroughbreds and the loss of millions of dollars. That management, and the doctors and epidemiologists called to the case, were right to worry that the disease might jump across species (in Penfield Park, the first animals to die were geese). Indeed, elsewhere in China, people were becoming sick, soon dying in droves. The race to discover the cause of SARS, which first appeared in the fall of 2002, makes a fascinating story, and Greenfeld recounts it vividly and coherently; yet, as he points out, much of that story of scientific detection and international teamwork remains little known simply because other world events—chiefly the U.S. invasion of Iraq—kept the story off the front page. It did not help that the Chinese government refused to acknowledge the problem and that Chinese doctors discouraged Western disease specialists from offering aid; by the sixth month of the outbreak, which lasted slightly more than a year, Hong Kong was “eerily quiet,” writes Greenfeld, “and I could make the drive from my apartment to my office—usually a twenty-minute ride—in about seven minutes.” He had it easy, as he knows: Hundreds died by the time a cause and remedy were found.

A taut scientific thriller, well told. Suffice it to say that conditions are ripe for a replay of the disease; keep an eye out for a grim sequel.