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17 Years later: A Comparison of SARS & Novel Coronavirus


After the emergence of the Coronavirus outbreak in late December, media outlets have frequently drawn comparisons between it and the 2003 outbreak of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome). Both Coronavirus (officially named COVID-19) and SARS originate from the broad coronavirus family, which according to the CDC includes viruses that can range from common colds, to viruses that remain isolated in circulation among animals.

Both COVID-19 Novel Coronavirus and SARS are included in a group of coronaviruses that have jumped from animals to humans, typically transmitted from an initial host animal such as bats and then to humans through another species that has closer or more regular contact, which is typically referred to as an intermediary host. In the case of SARS, the virus is thought to have originated in bats and then transmitted to humans via civet cats. Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), another member of the coronavirus group was transmitted to humans by camels. As for COVID-19, researchers theorize that mammals, more specifically pangolins, served as an intermediate host for the virus, which likely originated in bats. Pangolins, which somewhat resemble armadillos, are critically endangered animals which are often imported into China for both culinary and traditional medicinal uses. However, scientists cannot conclusively name pangolins as the intermediary host, as they have not had sufficient time to thoroughly investigate the link between the two.


Both SARS and COVID-19 have been traced back to Chinese “wet markets,” which are open-air markets that sell both domesticated and wild animals, which are often bought live and then butchered on site. The blood mixes with water that collects on the floors, creating unhygienic conditions that promote the spread and mutation of any existing pathogens. Despite efforts of the Chinese government to regulate wet markets, they often crop up as black markets in the face of outright bans due to the high demand for the exotic animals which are sold there. Some Chinese believe that animal parts, particularly those of wild and rare animals, can be used to make medicinal products, driving the demand for these products.


While scientists don’t know how exactly COVID-19 spreads, they can infer from data collected from other coronaviruses such as SARS and MERS, that coronavirus is spread through close contact via respiratory droplets. According to the CDC, this constitutes six feet and closer. Respiratory droplets are dispersed into the air through coughing and sneezing. If the droplets are inhaled or land within the mouth or nose of those nearby, infection can occur. Research has yet to find if COVID-19 can be contracted through touching surfaces with droplets, and then touching one’s eyes, mouth, or nose. SARS however, can be spread through touching surfaces with droplets.

SARS was spread to 29 countries, with 8,096 confirmed cases and 774 consequent deaths. As of February 12, COVID-19 has spread to 24 countries, with 44,653 confirmed cases and 1,113 deaths. When compared to SARS, COVID-19 spread much more easily, but has a lower fatality rate. The ease of spread is due to the longer incubation period of COVID-19, which can be up to 24 days, versus the 7-day incubation of SARS. The fatality rate of SARS was 9.6 percent, while the documented fatality rate of COVID-19 has yet to rise above 2 percent. COVID-19 spreads more easily but causes less total damage.


The containment of COVID-19 has been a more concentrated international effort than that of the SARS epidemic, largely due to the higher levels of transparency on the part of the Chinese government. The Chinese government released all the data they had on the structure of the virus to the international academic community, resulting in higher rates of collaboration compared to the SARS outbreak of 2002/2003, during which it took the Chinese government eight months to release any data they had on the biology of the virus.

Of particular focus in the media is the looming economic impact of COVID-19. With a vast majority of the cases for both the viruses located in China, the economic impact of COVID-19 is projected to be vastly different than that of SARS, due to several factors. The most prominent of these may be the fact that the economic landscape of China has developed significantly since 2003. China’s percentage of the global GDP is 12% higher than in 2003, and the nature of the economy’s growth has also evolved from dependence on investments to a concentration in retail sales and consumption services. More severe quarantines imposed by both the Chinese government and international community pose a particular threat to the Chinese economy and have rendered the economy more vulnerable to a large-scale slowdown.


Despite the efforts of both Chinese health officials and international health organizations such as the CDC and the World Health Organization to contain the virus, global spread still remains a relevant concern. Setting aside all conjectures and projections, only time will tell how severe the outbreak will become.

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