In February and March, when SARS began to spread outside of Guangdong province, where it first infected humans in late 2002, the Chinese central government made a series of politically motivated decisions that allowed the disease to gain deadly footholds in Beijing and elsewhere. Several Chinese officials have told me that a consideration in covering up—or, as one put it, "not mentioning"—the disease was the timing of the plenum of the National People's Congress, which convened in March. The country's top law-making body was then rubber-stamping the selection of a new President, and an unseemly new infectious disease could have been seen as besmirching heaven's mandate. This was a political decision that cost human lives.
The World Health Organization (WHO) also played politics—as a U.N. body must—but in this case it was in the service of public health. The international laboratory network it established took the lead in identifying the infectious agent. Its communicable-diseases team issued travel advisories that forced governments to take the threat seriously. Local WHO offices forged high-level relations with public-health officials and used SARS to achieve a partial opening of China's health-care and scientific communities. The WHO's political savvy contributed to curtailing the first outbreak.
Ever since this case surfaced, Guangzhou health authorities have treated it as SARS. The hospital has isolated the patient. Clinicians have taken appropriate infection-control measures. Guangzhou hospitals are the most experienced in the world at treating SARS. Guangzhou laboratories, however, are not up to the same standards, and that has led to suspected lab contamination as a possible cause for the positive tests that initially suggested this was a SARS case. Some Guangdong officials interpret as disrespectful the WHO's unwillingness to confirm their labs' findings. The WHO, which has no laboratories of its own and relies on collaborating institutions, has been unclear as to why it is delaying its diagnosis. It is, however, acting as if it is the only organization in the world allowed to confirm a SARS case. At what point, though, will waiting for a WHO diagnosis cause a critical delay? The work of responding to individual cases and making diagnoses must ultimately be the responsibility of local governments.
Yet the implications of the current case are so troubling that the diagnosis has been taken out of local hands. Unlike the previous laboratory-based SARS infections in Taiwan and Singapore, the patient in this instance had no known contact with the virus. The pressing question is where did this infection come from? "If this is SARS," says Huang Wenjie, director of respiratory diseases at Guangzhou General Military Hospital, "that means it is out in the community, and this may be a seasonal disease." One that, in all likelihood, won't be eradicated any time soon. The WHO is awaiting another series of antibody tests and will probably confirm the case this week, in a joint press conference with the Ministry of Health, rather than leave it to the Guangdong health officials who have been working the case. That will be a matter of protocol—the WHO as an international organization believes it should appear with its counterparts at the national, rather than the local, level. Yet the ill will engendered among local Guangdong officials might make them less eager to collaborate with the WHO the next time a possible case appears. The importance of maintaining this relationship in Guangdong goes beyond SARS to include other agents that might cross the species barrier—possibly avian influenza or some other novel zoonotic disease. Local officials and the WHO have to maintain a warm dialogue. The world's health depends on it.