• In the first half of 2003, a deadly disease known as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome spread from China into 28 other countries.
  • SARS infected a little more than 8,000 people, and killed 774 people. The majority of these cases were in Asia.
  • The disease is back on people’s minds as a new novel coronavirus spreads across the globe. COVID-19 has already killed more than 2,000 people – more than the total number who died from SARS.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

SARS was stopped, but it wasn’t easy.

Over about nine months, from late 2002 until July 2003, a deadly disease known as severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, spread from China into 29 countries. It infected 8,096 people, and killed 774, mostly in Asia.

Unlike HIV/AIDS, which took 20 years to cover the globe, or Ebola, which reared its head sporadically, SARS was a swift and terrifying pandemic.

One of the main reasons it had such a large and quick impact was that China failed to notify the World Health Organization until February 2003, several months after the SARS virus was first discovered.

Later, China downplayed the number of SARS patients in Beijing. The real number was 10 times as much as previously disclosed. It wasn’t until a prominent local doctor wrote to the international media that the real number came to light.

After the international embarrassment, thousands of people were quarantined in homes or hospitals, schools were closed, borders were monitored, and the pandemic was taken seriously.

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SARS is relevant now, 17 years later, as the world faces another deadly virus – the novel coronavirus now called COVID-19, which has infected at least 75,000 people, and killed more than 2,100.

Here’s how SARS seemingly came from out of nowhere, and ended up killing hundreds of people in seven months.


In 2003, masks became a symbol of terror as the world dealt with its first pandemic of the 21st Century — SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome.

Foto: Wearing protective masks, Hong Kong residents line up to get free masks on a Hong Kong downtown street on Friday, March 28, 2003,sourceVincent Yu / AP

Source: WHO


It began with a businessman who fell ill in Foshan, China. He had pneumonia-like symptoms, but the people who treated him quickly fell sick, too.

Foto: A patient suffering from the pneumonia-like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), breathes via a respirator in 2003.sourceReuters

Sources: The New York Times, The Atlantic


It’s thought that he caught the SARS virus from a wet market in southern Guangdong Province.

Foto: A man sits in his stall beside caged dogs in a market selling wild animals for dishes in Guangzhou in south China’s Guangdong province, in this May 26, 2003 photo.sourceSTR / AP

Source: Business Insider


By February 9, 305 people had contracted SARS in the region, and five people had died from it.

Foto: A doctor takes the temperature of a passenger before he boards a plane at Baiyun International Airport in Guangzhou, capital of south China’s Guangdong province in 2003.sourceXinhua Zhang Yiwen / AP

Sources: New Scientist, CNN


Doctors had never seen the virus before. What was confusing and prompted doubts was that, at the beginning, SARS looked like pneumonia.

Foto: A slide of a SARS lung tissue sample is shown on Tuesday, April 1, 2003, on a HDTV at a Center for Disease Control in Atlanta.sourceErik S. Lesser / AP

Source: History.com


The symptoms were similar — coughing, fever, body aches, difficulty breathing, fatigue. SARS spread through the air, by coughing or sneezing.

Foto: Primary school students wear masks to protect themselves from getting the killer pneumonia virus in Hong Kong March 24, 2003.sourceBobby Yip Pictures / Reuters

Sources: The New York Times, The New York Times


It was also, as CNN described, a “super spreader,” meaning one person could infect many others. And, worryingly, there was no known cure.

Foto: Arriving passengers help themselves to free vitamins, mostly Vitamin C or ascorbic acid to help prevent them from catching SARS.sourceBullit Marquez / AP

Source: CNN


To the world, it seemed like SARS came out of nowhere, but that wasn’t entirely true. China had an information blackout, and waited until February to disclose cases of SARS to the World Health Organization. In the coming months, China would be criticized for failing to be open about the virus.

Foto: Three security guards wearing masks run out to prevent photographs from being taken at the entrance to the sealed off Ditan Hospital in Beijing, Friday, April 25, 2003.sourceGreg Baker / AP

Source: The New York Times


There were a number of reasons for the delay. But the economy was a major one. Cholera in the early 1990s cost Peru $770 million, while India lost about $1 billion in tourism when it had a bout of the plague. China didn’t want its economy to take a hit.

Foto: A masked employee cleans a table at an empty restaurant Monday, May 26, 2003 in Beijing.sourceEugene Hoshiko / AP

Sources: The New York Times, Washington Post


In late February, an unusual case in Vietnam stumped a local doctor. He had heard about the outbreak in China, but wasn’t sure he was dealing with the same thing. Then, 10 staff members contracted the virus, and his “doubts would balloon into dread,” the Wall Street Journal wrote.

Foto: Karl Nicholson, a professor of infectious diseases, reviews SARS data collected from two hospitals in Hanoi, March 20, 2003.sourceDoan Bao Chau / AP

Source: WSJ


On February 21, SARS went global, after an infected doctor working in Guangdong province checked into Hong Kong’s Metropole Hotel. The virus spread to 16 other guests, who then dispersed around the world. Room 911, where he stayed, became a museum after the outbreak, and the building was renamed Room 911.

Foto: A hygiene worker wearing a protective mask passes Thursday, March 20, 2003 by Metropole Hotel in Hong KongsourceAnat Givon / AP

Sources: WHO, History.com


Having SARS in an international hub like Hong Kong was an infectious disease expert’s “worst nightmare,” The New York Times wrote at the time.

Foto: An airport guard wears a surgical mask to protect himself from severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, as he walked past an advertisement featuring a world map.sourceAnat Givon / AP

Sources: The New York Times


International travel made it difficult to contain SARS. Infected people could get through customs, and into another country, before they presented symptoms of the virus.

Foto: Passengers from Japan wearing protective masks get off their plane Thursday April, 17, 2003 at Pudong International Airport in Shanghai, China.sourceSTR / AP

Source: The New York Times


On March 15, SARS was finally taken seriously. The WHO labeled it a worldwide health threat, describing it as an unnamed virus spreading through Asia. There were concerns it could be as serious and deadly as the influenza pandemic of 1918-19.

Foto: David L. Heymann, executive director of WHO program on Communicable Diseases, gestures as he speaks during a press conference at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, Tuesday, April 1, 2003.sourceLaurent Gillieron / Keystone / AP

Sources: The New York Times, The Guardian, The New York Times, The New York Times


By April, SARS had spread from China to 25 other countries, including Canada, Hong Kong, and India, infecting nearly 3,500 people and killing 182.

Foto: Wolfgang Preiser, a member of WHO, reviews some documents at out-patient department of fever at Shanghai Pneumonology Hospital Thursday, April 24, 2003 in Shanghai.sourceEugene Hoshiko / AP

Source: The New York Times


Yet it still wasn’t clear, according to The New York Times, whether it would turn into “a global wildfire, or cool down.”

Foto: Shanghai residents attend a seminar on the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in China’s financial hub April 10, 2003.sourceChina Photo ASW / Reuters

Source: The New York Times


A clearer picture of the virus began to emerge in April when whistleblower Jiang Yanyong, a prominent doctor in Beijing, sent a letter to international media, informing them that at least 100 people were being treated for SARS in Beijing.

Foto: Military surgeon Jiang Yanyong is seen in a Beijing hotel room Monday, February 9, 2004.sourceHu Jia / AP

Source: The New York Times


On April 20, the Chinese government admitted there were 10 times as many SARS cases as reported in Beijing — 339 cases, rather than 37. To make amends, China’s health minister and the mayor of Beijing were both dismissed.

Foto: Chinese tourists all wearing masks walk down a commercial district in Beijing in a group Wednesday, April 23, 2003.sourceNg Han Guan / AP

Sources: The Guardian, Washington Post


The announcement caused panic. Thousands left Beijing, just a day after the WHO advised against traveling to Beijing or Shanxi province.

Foto: People wear masks as protection against the SARS virus as they wait to buy tickets at the Beijing Railway Station Wednesday, April 23, 2003.sourceGreg Baker/ AP

Source: Washington Post


One Beijing resident named Shi Chuanquan told The New York Times, “This virus is invisible and untouchable, which makes it really scary.”

Foto: A Chinese traveller wearing a mask sits near sections of the waiting lounge that has been closed off due to a slump in passenger numbers at a train station in Beijing Thursday, May 22, 2003.sourceNg Han Guan / AP

Source: The New York Times


Schools were closed down. More than 1.7 million students in Beijing were sent home.

Foto: Chan Cheong-chap, teacher of Yan Chai Hospital Wong Wha San Secondary School leads a virtual class with a computer in an empty classroom Thursday, April 24, 2003.sourceVincent Yu / AP

Sources: The Guardian, Washington Post


Measures at airports increased, including random temperature checks.

Foto: A thermal camera monitors the body temperature of passengers arriving from Taipei against the possible infection of the flu-like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) at Incheon International Airport, west of Seoul in 2003.sourceSung Yeon-jae Yonhap / AP

Source: Japan Times


Because SARS was spread through coughing and sneezing, surfaces like the insides of planes were wiped down. Beijing’s council also closed public spaces like swimming pools and movie theaters, where the virus could easily spread.

Foto: Three cleaners of Cathay Pacific Airways disinfect a plane in Hong Kong, south China, Thursday, May 15, 2003.sourceHuang Benqiang Xinhua / AP

Sources: WHO, The New York Times


Quarantines became a staple. In Beijing, crime-scene tape was wrapped around an entire block, keeping 2,000 health employees contained and cut off.

Foto: Three women crouch inside the closed gate of the People’s Hospital of Peking University in Beijing Friday April 25, 2003.sourceGreg Baker / AP

Source: The New York Times


People stocked up on basic household goods like cooking oil and rice, as well as masks.

Foto: Employees of South Korea’s Hanjin Shipping Company pack masks for the company’s overseas staff as a precaution against possible infection by the deadly disease, SARS, in April.sourceYun Jai-hyoung / AP

Source: The New York Times


Even though Beijing had about 14 million people, meaning the number of infected people was comparably low, it was taken seriously, and the impact was felt everywhere.

Foto: Children attend ballet lessons wearing masks to protect themselves from severe acute respiratory syndrome, SARS, in Hong Kong Sunday April 27, 2003.sourceVincent Yu / AP

Source: The New York Times


The news continued to be grim. In Hong Kong, SARS spread through an apartment building by way of bathroom drainpipes. According to the Washington Post, it was a “disturbing new confirmation of the microbe’s versatility.”

Foto: A guard stops photographers near Block E of Amoy Gardens apartment complex, in Hong Kong, while a health worker goes in, where 237 people have been sickened with SARS.sourceAnat Givon / AP

Source: Washington Post


Quarantines popped up in other countries. Here, a nurse talks to her relatives through a webcam in Taiwan in late April. Taiwan was the third worst hit country, with 83 deaths.

Foto: A nurse quarantined in the sealed off Taipei Municipal Hoping Hospital talks to her relatives outside the hospital through a web cam set up in the hospital, Sunday, April 27, 2003, in Taipei, Taiwan.sourceWang Fei-hua / AP

Source: CNN


Patrick Dixon, an expert on global trends, told The Guardian that unless SARS mutated into a less serious virus, “the only hope we have is to mount an immediate aggressive global response at the highest levels against SARS, something we’ve not yet seen.”

Foto: Roman Catholic worshippers wearing protective masks against severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, pray during Good Friday Mass at Hong Kong’s Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Friday, April 18, 2003.sourceAnat Givon / AP

Source: The Guardian


Also in April, scientists cracked the genetic code of SARS. With that in hand, drugs and vaccines could be made. Yet it wouldn’t be for another 20 months before a vaccine was ready to be used by humans.

Foto: Raymond Hui, a zoology student at the University of Hong Kong, whose team cracked the genetic code of the SARS virus, points at the screen of a genetic analyzer machine on Wednesday, April 16, 2003 in Hong Kong.sourceLo Sai Hung / AP

Sources: New Scientist, The New York Times


Headlines around the world continued to question how bad SARS would get. Newsweek’s cover read, “SARS Can it be stopped?”

Foto: A man wearing a surgical mask in a Hong Kong street Friday, May 2, 2003, because of the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, stops to look at a magazine poster that has SARS as its cover story.sourceLo Sai Hung / AP

On May 15, the Chinese government increased measures to beat SARS. It threatened to execute anyone who intentionally broke quarantine. About 11,000 people were confined to their homes or hospitals.

Foto: A man walks past a “No SARS” sign outside a restaurant in Beijing Tuesday May 6, 2003. The Chinese characters read “This place already disinfected”.sourceGreg Baker / AP

Source: Los Angeles Times, Irish Times, The New York Times


In Singapore, those who were suspected of being infected with SARS were monitored at home. Electronic bracelets alerted the police if they tried to leave.

Foto: Nurses clad in yellow hospital gowns and surgical masks stand by at Changi International Airport in Singapore, Tuesday, April 1, 2003.sourceWong Maye-e / AP

Sources: The New York Times, CNN


All of the prohibitive measures began to pay off. In June, SARS started to slow down. WHO Director General Gro Harlem Brundtland said, “We have seen SARS stopped dead in its tracks.”

Foto: Gro Harlem Brundtland, WHO director general, talks to reporters at Hong Kong’s international airport, Thursday, June 19, 2003,sourceAnat Givon / AP

Source: CNN


By early July, the WHO declared the outbreak was contained. In total, more than 8,000 people were infected and 774 died. It was stopped by isolating cases, good hygiene practices, as well as summer warmth and humidity.

Foto: A Chinese man holds up a banner welcoming the first foreign tour group to arrive at the Beijing airport after the SARS epidemic in Beijing, Monday, June 30, 2003.sourceNg Han Guan / AP

Sources: The New York Times, CNN


Of those who died, China had 349 deaths out of its 5,327 cases.

Foto: A Chinese nurse tends to a patient recovering from the flu-like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) at a hospital in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province, April 17, 2003.sourceChina Photo / Reuters

Source: History.com


In the United States, only eight people were infected, and no one died. This was partly due to the country being in a heightened state of alert after September 11, and the anthrax postal attacks. Another reason, according to The New York Times, was “sheer good luck.”

Foto: A map of SARS cases in the US in April 2003.sourceAnat Givon / AP

Sources: WHO, The New York Times, CDC


Toronto, Canada, wasn’t so lucky. The city was declared SARS-free in May, but later cases emerged. In the end, 375 people were infected and 44 people died. Up to 80% of small Asian-owned businesses’ income was estimated to be lost because of racist boycotting.

Foto: Ontario Health Minister Tony Clement, leaves the WHO headquarters, in Geneva, Switzerland, after a meeting with WHO Director General Gro Harlem Brundtland to try to get the WHO to reconsider the SARS travel advisory on Toronto issued by WHO.sourceFabrice Coffrini / Keystone / AP

Sources: The New York Times, Washington Post, CNN


But in relative terms, Hong Kong got it the worst. Along with a recession due to the city coming to a standstill, 1,755 people were infected, and 299 people died.

Foto: Relatives of SARS victims hold death certificates of their loved ones at the start of a news conference in Hong Kong, Friday Oct. 3, 2003.sourceAnat Givon / AP

Source: South China Morning Post


Since 2004, there have been no reported cases of SARS.

Foto: A woman plays with a protective mask at a shopping street in 2003 in Beijing.sourceEugene Hoshiko / AP

Sources: The New York Times, CDC, BBC


The final death toll was relatively low, considering the thousands who die from influenza every year. Yet SARS terrified the world — it was invisible, unknown, and the first pandemic of the globalized world.

Foto: Passengers wearing masks, walk out from a flight from Hong Kong at the Incheon International Airport, 50km (30 miles) west of Seoul, South Korea, Friday, April 4, 2003.sourceYun Jai-hyoung / AP

Sources: The New York Times, CDC, BBC