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Last Updated: Wednesday, 21 May, 2003, 21:10 GMT 22:10 UK
Scientists attack Sars with speed
The World Health Organisation has said it moved too slowly to stop the spread of Sars at the outbreak of the virus - but the speed with which scientists reacted upon its discovery remains remarkable.

Scientist working on the Sars virus
The WHO says the worldwide level of scientific co-operation was exceptional
The Sars outbreak was first reported on 17 March.

One week later, scientists in Hong Kong said they had identified the virus, and by the middle of April a genome sequence of the pathogen had been published, and a kit developed that could diagnose infection within a few hours.

Even more remarkably, the genome was mapped not by a specialist DNA lab but by a cancer treatment centre - the British Columbia Cancer Research Centre (BCCRC) in western Canada.

"We'd been developing a pipeline for DNA sequencing, particularly to address cancer research - but that allowed us to very quickly turn this sort of engine towards the sequencing of the Sars coronavirus," Dr Steven Jones, of the BCCRC, told BBC World Service's Science In Action programme.

"We received a sample from the national microbiology labs in Winnipeg, and they'd received a sample from a patient in Toronto suffering from Sars.

"So we were able to take that and load this into the pipeline, and on 12 April we were able to post on the internet the complete genomic sequence."

Pure sample

Dr Jones stressed that while the sample had been small and incomplete, the quality of it was the important factor in such quick sequencing.

Scientists are competitive by nature - all of them want to become Nobel prize winners, published in international journals - but all of that was set aside
Dr Klaus Stuhr, WHO
"It was an extremely pure sample that allowed us to sequence it without any contamination at all, so that was very fortunate," he said.

"We released the sequence on 12 April - on 13 May the three-dimensional structure of one of the key proteins in the Sars coronavirus was published in Science.

"Not only were they able to actually compose the structure, but they were also able to compose a class of compounds which would possibly be therapeutically relevant in treating Sars-corona patients."

Co-operation

The total time taken from receipt to publication was a week and Dr Jones added that it could have been even shorter.

"A lot of time was wasted waiting for samples to be flown in by courier," he said.

"Maybe in retrospect we should have had people going and escorting the samples as soon as possible."

Subsequent to the BCCRC's discovery, the company sought a patent to ensure everyone had free access to the code.

And Dr Klaus Stuhr of the WHO emphasised to Science In Action that the Sars outbreak had led to unprecedented co-operation in the scientific community.

"Our task was first to find the mechanism to make these people work together, and secondly to encourage them to be part of it," Dr Stuhr explained.

"The latter one was very easy because everyone wanted to collaborate, everyone was sharing information.

"Scientists are competitive by nature - all of them want to become Nobel Prize winners, published in international journals - but all of that was set aside with the comprehension that we were at a global health emergency."

Fears

But he added that the WHO remained exceptionally anxious about what may happen if the pace of research into Sars is not maintained.

"Is the disease going to stay where it is now, or will it go to other developing countries; the worry is we could have a world of two classes.

"That world would be divided between those who have Sars - where the disease would be endemic - and those who could pay for being free of the disease.

"These scenarios have to be kept in mind in our decisions on how we are going to control this disease."


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