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Why China’s current war on SARS isn’t all that different from the West’s

The death toll in Hong Kong has reached 21, with a 20th case in Pyeongchang, Korea, according to the city’s Health Department. The two deaths and 24 new cases of severe acute respiratory syndrome have elicited a flurry of new questions: How is the Chinese government responding? Who’s likely to get the disease? Can this risk turn into something worse?

To find out, Times reporters in China, Hong Kong and the United States are working to document the American and Chinese strategies for battling SARS and the also-struggling coronavirus, currently categorized as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome. Here are a few observations about who is responding and what they have in common:

Uncertainty is also a key element. The U.S. investigation into how SARS originated is ongoing, although the nation’s most famous sufferer has been declared to be fully recovered. Scientists in China, meanwhile, have no way of knowing the identity of the H7N9 virus, despite years of intensive research.

In April last year, the health-care conglomerate Shanghai Pudong Development Group bought one of the country’s largest drug companies and is controlling that company’s research, though the government is aggressively pursing the carrier bird. All told, the Chinese government wants to pursue every potential scientific angle.

The administration is heavily involved in the decision making, and for some reasons, the health-care industry and the pharmaceuticals sector have gotten a great deal of attention, even though WHO is only involved in health-care oversight. The finance and civil-service sectors don’t have nearly as much power.

As a result, the most important experts and public-health officials at Chinese universities and research institutes are held back by the administration, their output unlikely to get published for fear that the resulting research will jeopardize the operation of these companies.

Factors beyond scientific influence can also shape the war against SARS and the flu. Beating up China is now so important that it has become a popular justification for exercising primacy over China. The presidential candidates seem determined to take on Beijing on human rights or even, at times, on economic issues, adding a political dimension to the research effort and the political landscape.

The officials in charge of China’s cases are as dynamic as those on the brink of a diplomatic clash over trade. But they largely perceive SARS from the outside, which often frustrates officials inside the country, who remain focused on the scientific methods and industry dynamics. As a result, the Chinese approach has not become very different from the West’s.