Remembering SARS - 10 Years Later

SARS began as a mystery illness—without name, origin, or cure. In 2003, CDC and other public health scientists across the globe scrambled to understand and contain this new health threat.

February 2003

CDC began working with the World Health Organization (WHO) in late February 2003 to investigate and confirm outbreaks of an unusual pneumonia in Southeast Asia. By the time WHO issued a global alert cautioning that the severe respiratory illness may spread to hospital staff, CDC had confirmed this was not "bird flu," the influenza A (H5N1) that had been reported recently in Hong Kong. The mystery illness was given a name: Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), although scientists still did not know which microbe was causing SARS.

  • March 15, 2003, CDC issued its first health alert in the SARS outbreak.
  • During the 133 days of CDC's emergency response phase of the SARS outbreak, more than 850 people from across the agency were deployed to the EOC.
  • Within hours of activating the CDC response, 112 staff were deployed to response teams, CDC laboratories, and affected countries.
  • Within 3 days, 200 staff were working 24/7 on the response.

While still not fully knowing how SARS spread, CDC focused on detecting cases as early as possible and applying infection-control measures in health-care settings and the community to limit SARS in the United States. To protect healthcare workers, CDC advised using strict infection control actions to keep SARS from spreading from ill patients to those caring for them; specifically, the use of N-95 respirators and surgical masks in hospitals. Healthcare workers or visitors who had direct contact with patients were advised to wear N-95 respirators and CDC recommended that patients should be cared for in special air isolation rooms.

March 24, 2003

CDC reported that its lab scientists, along with scientists from collaborating international labs, believed SARS may be caused by a new virus from the coronavirus family.

April 14, 2003

CDC had identified the complete genetic sequence of the new virus. These results came just 12 days after a team of 10 scientists began working around the clock to identify the etiologic agent from a throat culture from a patient with SARS. With the complete gene sequence known, scientists could then start to look for drug treatments, diagnostic tests and possible vaccines to prevent or treat the new coronavirus.

SARS was introduced to the United States through air travel. The United States had eight lab-confirmed cases of SARS and no deaths. SARS, for the United States, was a travel-associated illness. During the outbreak, CDC quarantine officers handed out health alert notices to passengers arriving from 11,480 flights originating from areas with SARS. CDC officials were meeting planes, cargo ships and cruise ships coming to the United States from China. Since SARS, many changes and improvements have been made. In 2003, CDC had eight quarantine stations around the country. Partially in response to SARS, but also due to greater concerns about the spread of infectious diseases and bioterrorism, CDC expanded the number of quarantine stations to 20 (between the years 2004-2007).

July 25, 2003

The CDC EOC activation for SARS ended on July 25, 2003. Worldwide there were 8,096 reported cases of SARS and 774 deaths.

October 5, 2012

The National Select Agent Registry Program declared SARS coronavirus a select agent.

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SOURCE: CDC, April 15, 2013

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