Interactive Case Study: The SARS Epidemic

Journal Title

International Dimensions of Ethics Education Case Study Series

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This material is part of an interactive on-line curriculum developed by the International Dimensions of Ethics in Science and Engineering project (www.umass.edu/sts/ethics). It includes a set of cases and related resources based on real events with international ethical dimensions. The case studies are based upon in-class case studies written and developed by MJ Peterson, Professor of Political Science at UMass Amherst. The interactive components were created and implemented under the direction of Thomas Murray. Some cases include audio interviews with fictitious stakeholders showing different perspectives on the case. The project homepage includes guidelines for structuring online student discussion forums and activities, and "driving questions" for homework and/or discussion.


Between the months of November 2002 and July 2003 there was a global scale pandemic of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). Within a matter of weeks SARS spread from the Guangdong province of China to rapidly infect individuals in some 37 countries around the world. Worldwide, there were 8,096 known cases and 774 deaths listed by the World Health Organization (WHO). Controversy erupted when it was discovered that Chinese scientists and engineers, under constraints imposed explicitly or implicitly by the Chinese government, did not at first report information about the possible epidemic to WHO authorities. In the spring of 2003, the Chinese began providing more information to WHO and subsequently revised their policies for dealing with large scale outbreaks of infectious diseases. In exploring the perspective of various stakeholders and why they made certain decisions at various stages, this case illustrates how differences in cultural norms can lead to unexpected consequences. As WHO policies were improved as a result of this pandemic, the case also illustrates how international bodies respond and adapt to real and potential global crises.