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Explained: Before novel coronavirus, the SARS epidemic that hit China 17 years ago

SARS is also caused due to a type of coronavirus. The virus first infected human beings in the Guangdong province of southern China in 2002.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: February 11, 2020 8:14:19 am
novel coronavirus, coronavirus, coronavirus latest news, coronavirus updates, sars, what was sars, china news, indian express, express explained People hold signs of support for China at a Lunar New Year parade in the Chinatown neighborhood of New York on Sunday. (Photo: AP)

On Sunday (February 9), death toll due to the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) epidemic in China exceeded that of the SARS outbreak of 2002-2003. So far, 908 deaths have been reported, exceeding the SARS fatality toll of 774 17 years ago. Also, compared with the 8,098 people infected by SARS in mainland China, 2019-nCoV infections are significantly higher, at 40,171 cases currently.

What was the SARS epidemic of 2002-2003?

Like the 2019-nCoV or Wuhan virus, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is also caused due to a type of coronavirus, called the SARS coronavirus (SARS-CoV).

SARS is believed to be an animal virus, possibly transmitted from bats to civet cats to human beings.

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Both SARS and 2019-nCoV are types of viral pneumonia, and there are no antibiotics or safe and effective vaccines that work against them.

The SARS virus first infected human beings in the Guangdong province of southern China in 2002, with the region still considered a potential zone of its re-emergence. It was considered the first major novel infectious disease to affect the international community in the 21st century.

The epidemic affected 26 countries and resulted in more than 8,000 cases in 2003. Mainland China and Hong Kong together accounted for 87% of all infections and 84 per cent of deaths.


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SARS is transmitted from person to person, and the symptoms include fever, malaise, headache, myalgia, diarrhoea and shivering. According to the WHO, fever is the most frequently reported symptom, and cough, shortness of breath and diarrhoea follow in the first or second week of illness.

Other countries where the SARS CoV spread during the epidemic include Hong Kong, Canada, Chinese Taipei, Singapore and Vietnam. Since the epidemic, a small number of cases have occurred due to laboratory accidents or through animal-to-human transmission.


China was criticised for the secretive ways with which it dealt with SARS 17 years ago.

According to a Bloomberg article, China’s economic growth had slipped two full percentage points, falling from 11.1 per cent in the first quarter of 2003 to 9.1 per cent the following quarter. Growth recovered to 10 per cent in the third quarter.

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As per a WHO report, three cases of SARS infections were detected in India between November 1, 2002 and July 31, 2003.

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First published on: 10-02-2020 at 08:28:14 pm
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