Guest Columnist

John Richard Schrock

China Epidemics


As my airline flight landed at the Beijing Capitol International Airport, the captain announced that all passengers were to remain seated when we reached the gate. A team from the Chinese health service would board the plane to check our temperatures. 

    They were young health officers in crisp uniforms. Each carried a device that looked like a small hair dryer. They aimed it at a passenger's forehead from a foot away, checked the read-out, and reset it. Dressed in a hazmat suit, a female health officer aimed and read my temperature. Check. Reset. I passed! 

    But if just one passenger had a fever, all of us—having been enclosed with that passenger for 13 hours—might have to go to a hotel for a week. They rapidly worked the plane. Four minutes max! We were cleared to de-board. There were additional temperature scanners as we walked through airport immigration. 

    That year was 2009 and Kansas was one of a dozen states with H1N1 influenza cases. The outbreak  had started in Mexico with cases now showing up in Fort Riley and Wichita and Kansas City. I came from a hi-risk area in the U.S., but I passed. 

    At my destination university in northwest China, I was given a thermometer and notebook and asked to take my temperature each morning and night. Had I been a returning Chinese university student, I would have likely been isolated for a week in a quarantined dormitory. Each night, the Chinese news reported intercepting and isolating travelers with H1N1 flu in Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai. They were stopping any carriers before any in-country person-to-person transmission began. Their response to this potentially pandemic virus was careful, measured and effective. 

    With nearly five times our population, China has reason to be careful. And their population has the discipline and sacrifice necessary to hold back an epidemic.

    Six years earlier—in 2003—another epidemic had occurred. The SARS virus had jumped from bats to civet cats and then to people in Hong Kong and south China. My colleagues told me not to come that year. China shut down all airlines. All trains. To get across country, each university would have to send a car for me. China had re-established their travel checkpoints on major roads. Run a temperature and you stayed in place. Students were confined behind their university walls. China stopped SARS in its tracks and Hong Kong scientists worked out the identity of the corona virus in record time.

    SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) was caused by one of the first coronaviruses discovered. Viruses contain either DNA or RNA at their core, and SARS was caused by a single-strand RNA virus, one of the largest of the RNA viruses. It is "zoonotic," meaning that it is transmitted in the wild among specific animals. But it had jumped to humans and caused serious flu-like pneumonia symptoms. If it can be spread human-to-human, it causes an epidemic. SARS was particularly dangerous for health workers who cared for patients. 

    Starting in November 2002 through July 2003, cases of SARS in southern China exceeded 8,000, with 774 deaths across 37 countries. Some cases spread to Toronto Canada where patients were quarantined. Fortunately, SARS never got into the United States. China's efforts—they have a Center for Disease Control modeled after ours—stopped SARS. Since 2004, no more cases of SARS have been reported anywhere in the world.

    Today, this new Wuhan-origin coronavirus appears to be similar.

    My Chinese colleagues know that in these situations, group responsibility comes before personal rights. The greatest good for the greatest number. But in the United States, 20-mile checkpoints would be unthinkable. Had SARS entered the U.S., our independence and refusal to freeze traffic nationwide would have resulted in a terrible death toll. There is a time when personal rights have to yield to public responsibility, or we all will suffer.