Going Viral

OPINION | The Walkley Magazine | August 2015


In the streets and subways of Seoul there was initial anxiety, with many people wearing surgical masks on the subway

by Wilson da Silva


THE FIRST HINT that a deadly disease outbreak had arrived in Seoul was the rolling coverage on the TV screen in the airport bus from Incheon International. I didn’t understand the Korean newscast, but could see from the coloured electron micrographs of viruses and the footage of people in biosafety ‘moon suits’ that some kind of outbreak was unfolding in the city I’d just flown into.


It was 9pm by the time I got to my hotel, and thankfully BBC World News plugged the gaps: MERS, or Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, a deadly respiratory disease caused by a newly-emerged coronavirus first identified in Saudi Arabia in 2012, had struck this sprawling megalopolis – the second largest in the world with more than 25.6 million people – and infections were spreading fast.


Three people were dead, 30 had tested positive, and almost 1,000 people who had come in contact with the infected were placed in quarantine. Earlier that day, South Korean President Park Geun-Hye, in her first statement on the matter, had called for calm – triggering a tsunami of coverage on Korean news channels and breaking stories on CNN and the BBC.

People were right to be concerned: MERS is deadly. It causes the rapid onset of pneumonia-like symptoms, including fever, cough and diarrhoea; there is no vaccine or treatment, and 40% who are infected die.

People were right to be concerned: MERS is deadly. It causes the rapid onset of pneumonia-like symptoms, including fever, cough and diarrhoea; there is no vaccine or treatment, and 40% who are infected die.


It is caused by a strain of coronavirus, the same humdrum species that gives us the common cold. But since November 2002, when another coronavirus emerged in Guangdong Province of China and went on to kill 774 people in 37 countries over the next eight months – triggering what became known as SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) – people have taken coronaviruses rather more seriously.


In that outbreak, it took scientists five months to confirm the culprit and pin down the animal from which the virus had jumped to humans: Asian palm civets, small to medium-sized mammals sold in rural markets as bush meat. The virus was later found in raccoon dogs, ferret badgers and even domestic cats. It wasn’t until much later that the ‘reservoir’ – the original source of the infections – was pinned to bats, and had spread to humans either directly or through animals held in Chinese markets.


Bad time to get married? A wedding party pose with surgical masks in Seoul during the MERS outbreak

MERS, on the other hand, was first discovered in a patient who died in June 2012 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. This time, the medical fraternity were alert to coronaviruses and quickly identified the cause, but the virus had largely been confined to Saudi Arabia, with sporadic cases detected in the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Qatar and Iran – in all, killing some 400 people. Like SARS, MERS is believed to have ‘jumped species’, with an identical strain found in camels, and later in bats.


What made the Korean outbreak so surprising was that MERS wasn’t supposed to spread easily among humans – it had thought to be a nasty virus that primarily lives in animals and seldom makes the leap to humans; when it does, the disease doesn’t get very far. But suddenly, it was spreading among people.


Diseases that jump species – known as zoonotic pathogens – are a growing feature of modern life, where humans are increasingly encroaching into wilderness habitats and where air travel can make a local outbreak an international epidemic. Ebola, avian influenza, BSE or 'mad cow disease' and Hendravirus (the latter first identified in Australia, where it killed one man and 14 horses) ­– are all examples.


As it happened, the World Conference of Science Journalists was to about to start in Seoul, and 1,000 of my colleagues were descending on the city. I had come to chair a session, and so had arrived into the centre of an outbreak. Having covered the SARS epidemic in 2003, I knew how things could go rather badly.


‘Patient zero’ – a 68-year-old man returning from the Middle East – had been to four hospitals before his case of MERS was recognised, and these became the home of clusters that saw infections double, and then double again within a matter of days.

As it happened, the World Conference of Science Journalists was to about to start in Seoul, and I had arrived into the centre of an outbreak. Having covered the SARS epidemic in 2003, I knew how things could go rather badly.

But the virus had failed to spread outside hospitals, which was good news: SARS, on the other hand, had spread wildly through restaurants and apartment complexes in Hong Kong, and via planes far and wide. Nevertheless, in the days that followed, the Korean coverage verged on the hysterical. Surgical masks – often used in flu season in many Asian cities – became common in the streets, scores of public events were cancelled and more than 2,000 schools were closed.


As science journalists, we knew the outbreak – confined as it was to hospitals and those who had visited them – presented no danger to us and probably little to the general populace, and that wearing masks was useless against infection. But old habits die hard: we spotted some of our Asian colleagues sporting them at some of the sessions.


As the outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome gripped Seoul, more than 2,000 schools were eventually closed

Within a week, new infections had slowed dramatically, and the disease – thanks to zealous infection control and diligent tracking down of all who had visited the hospitals – was burning itself out. In the end, there were 185 cases and 33 fatalities, and 2,467 people had been held in isolation. The largest outbreak of MERS outside Saudi Arabia had been contained. But 20,000 tourists had cancelled travel plans, and the government – already facing an economic slowdown – was forced to unveil a US$10 billion stimulus package.


As a journalist, what was intriguing was the disconnect between what I saw in the media and what I experienced in the streets of Seoul: yes, there was initial anxiety amongst the populace – with 20% of people wearing face masks on the subway, quickly falling to almost no-one as new infection rates fell – versus pandemonium in local newspapers and TV and breathless coverage on international cable news, which only grew as the days passed. News, it seems, is more viral than viruses.


But there were still people in bars, in restaurants, in the hyper-modern shopping malls, and in the centuries-old temples. Only the Korean Demilitarised Zone, which so many of us had wanted to visit, had gone into lockdown, the local provincial government banning visits from all those potentially infected people from Seoul – including a large contingent of disappointed journalists.

Wilson da Silva is a science journalist in Sydney, the founding editor-in-chief of the Australian science magazine, COSMOS.

© 2019-20 Wilson da Silva. All rights reserved.