Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) may be under control, but researchers worldwide are only beginning to study the killer virus. In China alone, where it first struck, a national SARS task force now wields US$13 million. This development is marred, however, by a tremendous missed chance.
In this article, Martin Enserink traces the story of how researchers at the Beijing-based Academy of Military Medical Science were the first to isolate the virus – but failed to publicise the fact. The reason? Their finding did not match the official Chinese line that SARS was caused by Chlamydia.
Despite the delays this caused in the search for SARS, there is a silver lining. The experience has created a new atmosphere in Chinese science, boosting both collaboration and work in neglected fields such as public health. Challenging authority is, it seems, a lesson China had to learn the hard way.