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The financial toll, meanwhile, is already catastrophic. Economists predict that China and South Korea could each suffer some $2 billion in SARS-related losses in tourism, retail sales and productivity. Japan and Hong Kong stand to lose more than $1 billion apiece, and Taiwan and Singapore could lose nearly that much. In Canada, meanwhile, J.P. Morgan Securities Canada estimates that Toronto is losing $30 million a day. All told, says WHO, the global cost of SARS is approaching $30 billion.
And nobody can forecast how much worse it could get. The more victims there are, the greater the chance that SARS will spread--and there may be a lot more cases in China than anyone realizes. It's hard to gather information in such a vast country under the best of circumstances, but the actions of Chinese officials have made the situation worse. In April the government finally grudgingly admitted that SARS is a problem and belatedly allowed in a WHO team to investigate. Soon doctors at Beijing hospitals began leaking word of a massive cover-up. The country's Health Minister and the mayor of Beijing were dismissed last week from their jobs and their Communist Party posts. Chinese officials have revised their numbers, but they are still not telling WHO about patterns of spread. "Right now," says Jeffrey McFarland, a member of the Beijing WHO team,"we're getting exactly the same information as the press."
--CURBING THE SPREAD
Beyond that, the physical mechanism by which SARS is spread is still unclear. In mid-March, Hong Kong officials thought they knew how to control the epidemic. Since SARS seemed to require close contact with a victim, anyone suspected of infection was quarantined, and doctors and nurses were careful to wear protective clothing when dealing with patients. Then came Amoy Gardens. Clusters of cases began proliferating in the giant, 33-floor apartment towers in Hong Kong. Ultimately, more than 300 residents of the complex came down with SARS (at least 15 have died), even though many of them seemed to have had no direct contact with one another.
In fact, despite intensive research in labs all over the world, scientists still have more questions than answers about SARS and the coronavirus that causes it. So while teams from WHO are helping health workers on the front lines, other scientists are redoubling their efforts to understand SARS' natural history.
One mystery is where the disease came from. Coronaviruses have long been known to veterinary medicine because they routinely infect livestock, ducks and other domestic animals. In humans they had never caused anything worse than a cold, but this strain is clearly different. Given belated access to Chinese records just three weeks ago, WHO teams are looking carefully at the records of human cases. They also plan to conduct more detailed studies of unusual infections in animal populations. If they can find the animal hosts, they might be able to prevent new animal-to-human transmissions.