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By John Hanchette

"In enclosed places such as monasteries and prisons, the infection of one person usually meant that of all, as happened in the Franciscan convents of Carcassonne and Marseilles, where every inmate without exception died. Of the 140 Dominicans at Montpelier only seven survived. Petrarch's brother Gherardo, member of a Carthusian monastery, buried the prior and 34 fellow monks one by one, sometimes three a day, until he was left alone with his dog. ... Watching every comrade die, men in such places could not but wonder whether the strange peril that filled the air had not been sent to exterminate the human race." -- From "A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century," by Barbara W. Tuchman.

OLEAN -- Perhaps a not-so-distant mirror, eh? Could SARS be the wrath of God, sent down as some sort of reminder to humanity that we are but miserable motes of dust in the eye of the deity, and can be eliminated in a flash of celestial desire, similar to the widespread belief that accompanied the Black Plague of the 1300s, so ably described in the great historian Tuchman's book?

The bubonic plague, after all, started quietly, too, seven centuries ago, and with repeated assurances it was under control.

Before done, it wiped out a quarter of all Europe.

Or is Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome the work of mere human hand, cooked up in some remote lab somewhere -- either by terrorists or well-meaning but arrogant scientists?

Eclipsed by war news, SARS has actually been around since last November.

The government of China, where it was first noticed, managed to contain it to Guangdong province until March, when a mild-mannered medical professor named Liu Jianlin, 64 -- who had been treating SARS patients -- slipped into Hong Kong from Guangdong to attend a wedding. He fell ill at the festivities.

Recognizing the danger, he asked to be put into quarantine. He was ignored. Neither the hospital where he was taken nor the government warned the persons with whom he had made contact.

In the hotel where he had stayed briefly, nine other guests caught SARS.

The communist leadership in Beijing was irresponsible, too.

After news leaked out on an Internet notification service for contagious disease outbreaks, the World Health Organization asked to investigate. China for several weeks refused to let WHO in. Once WHO medical investigators arrived, SARS patients were hidden from them. Even in a near-totalitarian state, image is all.

Liu Jianlin may not have been Patient Zero in China, but for the rest of the world, he might as well have been.

The nine infected hotel guests checked out and transported the disease to Singapore, Vietnam, other Hong Kong hospitals -- and Canada. It gained impressive momentum.

By the end of the first week in April, there were about 2,700 cases in 19 countries, with 103 deaths. By last Friday, there were about 4,700 cases with 274 deaths in almost 30 countries. The global death rate at the end of last week: about a dozen new deaths a day, with 210 new cases daily.

Leaders -- as they did 700 years ago -- urge us not to panic. After all, the comparative statistics can be comforting. About half a million Americans die of heart disease each year, same for cancer. We've come to accept that without much panic.

But the SARS statistics have a frightening aspect just emerging to medical researchers.

As mentioned in an editorial on another page in this newspaper, the death rate for SARS seems to hover at about five percent -- five of every 100 who come down with it expire. In 1917 and 1918, a global flu epidemic wiped out 20 million humans. The mortality rate of that influenza infection was only one percent.

The Toronto area, as last week came to an end, had about 260 cases and 16 deaths.

New York State health officials report about 30 suspected cases in the state.

The SARS affliction has leaked over the border into upstate, with confirmed or suspected cases in Syracuse, Canandaigua, Rochester and Niagara County.

You know it's serious when casinos start prohibiting Canadian tour buses full of paying customers -- as did the one across the street from this newspaper.

Foxwoods Resort Casino, outside of Hartford, Conn., last week postponed a big show just because it had Asian entertainers in it.

In Buffalo on Easter weekend, traffic on the Peace Bridge -- the third busiest crossing between the United States and Canada -- was down 18 percent, and that was before the World Health Organization issued a controversial travel alert for Toronto.

In the Philippines, the national legislature debated a proposed law that would make sneezing in public itself an "act of terrorism" -- punishable on the same level as selling explosives. In the much-read scientific journal, "Nature," an editorial states "Mother nature is the ultimate terrorist."

Ironically, Carlo Urbani, the WHO doctor who first pegged SARS as a new disease, succumbed to it himself. A sample was taken from his lungs and sent to the University of California at San Francisco, where the culprit was identified as corona virus, the same type that causes colds and pneumonia.

But there's something else going on here.

Ask me if I think this is a product of bioterrorism -- unleashed by some madman in a backstairs laboratory somewhere -- and I'll answer it's a possibility.

But ask me if this is more likely a biogenetic experiment gone awry, and I'll answer yes.

Virologists have noticed the corona virus in SARS infects cells in culture dishes, which other human corona viruses so far cannot be made to do. When medical researchers removed lung tissue from Toronto victims, the SARS virus infected monkey kidney cells, which human corona virus so far cannot be made to do.

Dr. Mae-Wan Ho, writing in Great Britain for the Institute for Science in Society, points out that a study just published in the prestigious "New England Journal of Medicine" indicates DNA-type tests on the new virus show it is not related to any known virus at all -- not in humans, not in mice, not in pigs, not in cows, not in birds, not in cats, not in anything living.

Experiments in manipulating viral genomes are "now routine," writes Mae-Wan Ho. "It shows how easy it is to create new viruses that jump host species in the laboratory, in the course of apparently legitimate experiments in genetic engineering. Similar experiments could be happening in nature when no one is looking, as the SARS and many other epidemics amply demonstrate."

In other words, continues Mae-Wan Ho, "geneticists can now greatly speed up evolution in the laboratory to create viruses and bacteria that have never existed in all the billions of years of evolution on earth."

A subhead on Mae-Wan Ho's article reads: "Who needs bio-terrorists when we've got genetic engineers?"

So, in this corner, Wrath of God. In the opposite corner, Blithering Scientist Seeking Genetic Miracle and Playing God. I'll probably go with the latter.

Look for an imminent and controversial reaction to all this danger -- the licensing of scientists by some international board before they can conduct such biogenetic and biomedical experiments.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science, the World Medical Association, the Royal Society of Medicine and the New York Academy of Medicine are already considering it.

John Hanchette, a professor of journalism at St. Bonaventure University, is a former editor of the Niagara Gazette and a Pulitzer Prize-winning national correspondent. He was a founding editor of USA Today and was recently named by Gannett as one of the Top 10 reporters of the past 25 years. He can be contacted via e-mail at Hanchette6@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com April 29 2003