On Thursday, the National Science Council (NSC) gathered representatives of domestic medical research institutions to discuss plans for fighting the spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). Academia Sinica, National Taiwan University Hospital and the National Health Research Institutes have agreed to work together on research aimed at finding a vaccine against SARS and to put up US$1 million to fund the project. Although this is a late move -- coming 40 days after SARS first appeared in this country -- the government has finally taken the step most crucial to fighting the disease.
SARS is frightening because almost nothing is known about its origin, how it is transmitted, how to detect it, or how to treat it. What is known is that it is a coronavirus, that it appears to be spread via saliva particles and that its symptoms include a fever and cough. There is as yet no method for diagnosis. There is no known cure, so we have to rely on immunoglobulin and steroid treatments. There is no way of determining at what point a patient is cured. The death rate stands at 8 percent to 10 percent.
Doctors and governments are fumbling in the dark. What is needed now is basic SARS research. Thanks to modern molecular biology, virologists have been able to quickly isolate various SARS strains and to complete a genetic analysis of each of them. However, health experts say it will take at least a year to develop of a vaccine or medication to fight the virus or at least some strains of it.
In mid-April, US officials gathered representatives from about 60 companies working on antiviral medications to discuss ways of fighting SARS. The participants were cautious about jumping into anti-SARS research. Pharmaceutical companies have to be concerned about the profitability of their investments. If they invest all their efforts, at short notice, on a new program, it could hurt the progress of ongoing research and their competitiveness. They also worry that, if SARS were to disappear quickly, they will not get a return on their investments.
Pharmaceutical companies in this country don't have the ability or resources to develop new medication to fight SARS. So it is up to the government to work together with industry to develop SARS medicine or vaccines. However, the scale of the government's current investment is too small to rapidly develop new medicines.
The legislature has already decided to budget NT$50 billion (US$1.44 billion) to fight SARS and to deal with problems arising from the epidemic. The government should allocate more funds for fundamental SARS research and encourage active cooperation between domestic and international medical research organizations. It should also provide rewards for developing new SARS medicine, to help reduce enterprises' investment risk.
The first focus should be on developing accurate testing kits to identify probable SARS cases. Such kits would help prevent large numbers of people without the illness being quarantined as a precaution -- and save the government from having to pay out huge amounts of compensation for quarantines. Developing a remedy for the disease and eventually a vaccine will save lives and medical resources. Investment in SARS research will actually be an economic benefit.
If Taiwan's researchers can help advance the world's knowledge of this disease, it will be a significant contribution to the global public health system. This will benefit both this nation and other. Biomedical researchers worldwide are collaborating -- and competing -- in the battle against SARS. This is one contest where everyone will be a winner.