A doctor onboard a plane at an airport in Shenyang, China, monitoring passengers for SARS on May 15, 2003.
A doctor onboard a plane at an airport in Shenyang, China, monitoring passengers for SARS on May 15, 2003. (China Photo/reuters)
Reviewed by Laurie Garrett
Sunday, April 9, 2006


The True Story of the 21st Century's First Great Epidemic

HarperCollins. 442 pp. $25.95

By Karl Taro Greenfeld

Shortly before Easter of 2003, I took a nearly empty jumbo jet flight to Tokyo, landing in the usually cacophonous Narita Airport. The massive concrete terminal was almost deserted. My footsteps issued eerie echoes that bounced back so loudly that initially I thought someone was following me. While waiting for my connecting flight I noticed that people averted their eyes from one another. A nervous electricity filled the air.

When the PA system announced my connection to Hong Kong, a bizarre thing happened: Everybody in sight -- not just the people boarding -- reached into their bags, withdrawing masks and placing them carefully over their noses and mouths. Even 1,700 miles away, the words "Hong Kong" inspired presumably rational human beings to don everything from huge gas masks to tie-on cotton affairs; those lacking official gear wrapped kerchiefs or scarves around their faces. As I boarded my nearly empty aircraft, alarmed flight attendants, barely audible through their N-95 facemasks, asked why I was not also wearing protection. I thought they were nuts.

And so I had a divine flight, with an entire section of Business Class and an abandoned food/liquor cart all to myself. Nobody anywhere in Asia wanted to be around a mask-less passenger during the SARS epidemic.

As the world braces for a possible influenza pandemic, it is wise to recall what happened when a previously unknown virus surfaced in China in November 2002, sparking an outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). Though most American soon forgot SARS, for many Asians and Canadians the period from November 2002 to June 2003 remains as starkly memorable as the date 9/11 for residents of Washington and New York. And it has had a profound impact on the world's conception of disease: SARS, which infected just over 8,000 people within a few months of being identified in China, was the first previously unknown microbe to jump rapidly from continent to continent on the pathways of globalization.

When the virus first broke out in China's southern Guangdong province -- covered up by orders of the Chinese Communist Party -- Karl Taro Greenfeld was living a couple of hours' train ride away in Hong Kong. As the young editor of Time Asia, Greenfeld had worked all over the region for years and authored two popular books, including the bestselling frolic across Japan, Speed Tribes , and had been put in charge of a team of veteran Asia hands.

The Time staff's efforts to cover the SARS epidemic is one of three reasonably well-integrated tales that make up China Syndrome. The others are the story of a new virus and its scientific pursuit, and the Chinese government's attempts to prevent the world from knowing what was happening. Greenfeld -- who currently works for Sports Illustrated -- is a compelling writer, and China Syndrome echoes the sort of gritty, breathless thriller pace that Richard Preston employed 10 years ago in The Hot Zone . Here is Greenfeld's description of potential contamination in the restaurant district of Shenzen:

"One night, when several of the chefs and chop boys were sitting around on the back steps, passing back and forth a jar of grain liquor, Chou Pei looked at Fang Lin.

" ' You've got blood on your face,' he said.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company