There's a chance now to get to the root of SARS, the mysterious and occasionally fatal illness, now that the Chinese have opened up their records and allowed international health researchers into Guangzhou province.
The Chinese government knew about the disease in December, but ingrained secrecy, an institutional reluctance to report bad news to higher-ups and bureaucratic inertia ensured little was done. Certainly the World Health Organization wasn't notified.
In the meantime, the disease spread through Chinese cities, finally reaching Hong Kong, where it spread worldwide. As of Wednesday, there were 2,236 known cases and 78 deaths.
The Chinese government continued to stonewall — journalists were prohibited from reporting on the disease — and it wasn't until Tuesday that it allowed WHO investigators to travel to the source of SARS. Even now Beijing insists SARS is under "effective control." But the Chinese government stonewalled in the face of mounting evidence — its own.
International health officials must make their Chinese counterparts understand that China is no longer in Chairman Mao's hermetic vacuum, that it is an integral part of a larger world, that it has responsibilities to both other nations and its own people and that pretending a disease doesn't exist won't make it go away.
There are signs that the disease is being contained, although hardly under "effective" control, and that now that the disease has been identified, it is responding to early detection and treatment.
In the end, SARS may fall well short of being a worldwide epidemic and may be recorded as only a nasty scare. But already just the fear is hurting the airlines, tourism and travel, particularly in Southeast Asia, and analysts say that if the scare continues it will match Asia's 1997 financial crisis in impact on GDPs.
Even if the major repercussions from SARS are largely economic, the disease has done damage enough.