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SARS, Aircraft, and Evolution

From a New York Times story filed from Hong Kong:

Health officials announced here tonight that a man infected with a new respiratory disease had flown from Hong Kong to Munich, Barcelona, Frankfurt, London, Munich again, Frankfurt again and then back to Hong Kong before entering a hospital.

The Hong Kong Department of Health appealed for passengers and air crews from all seven flights to consult medical professionals. A health department spokeswoman said it was not yet known whether the man, who is 48, had infected anyone else on the flights with the disease -- severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS.

All the flights were on Lufthansa. The airline said in a statement tonight that it had disinfected all the planes and was contacting the air crews and passengers...

Airlines have been saying that the filters aboard modern planes do a good job of removing viruses from the air. But according to the health department here, at least 13 people have fallen ill with SARS so far after they shared a flight from Hong Kong to Beijing last month with an elderly man who had been infected with the disease while visiting his brother in a hospital here...

Travelers have continued to board planes while feeling ill despite strenuous warnings from the World Health Organization and national health agencies that they not do so.

In the case that was announced tonight, the man flew on Lufthansa Flight 731 on March 30 from Hong Kong to Munich, and traveled the next day on Flight 4316 to Barcelona, according to an itinerary that was released here by the health department. He developed symptoms while in Barcelona.

The man then traveled on Flight 4303 to Frankfurt on April 2 and on to London the same day on Flight 4520. He went to Munich the next day on Flight 4671, then headed for Frankfurt on April 4 on Flight 265. He connected with Flight 738 the same day back to Hong Kong, arriving on April 5.

The man checked into a hospital here on April 8 and was confirmed today to have SARS.

Some years ago, I had the great pleasure of meeting the evolutionary biologist and author Richard Dawkins over dinner at his house in Oxford. At the time, the Ebola virus was in the news. I had just read The Hot Zone by Richard Preston, whose first chapter -- in which a Kenyan man in the near-final stages of Ebola, vomiting blood as his internal organs begin to disintegrate, boards a flight to Nairobi to seek treatment -- is the scariest thing I've ever read.

"Would it be possible," I asked Dawkins, "for a virus to evolve specifically to take advantage of modern aircraft ventilation systems? Could a virus evolve that would use aircraft as more than just transportation for its human hosts?"

Dawkins thought for a moment, then replied.

"Yes, I believe it would be possible."

I hope people listen to the warnings and stop flying if they have symptoms of SARS. I understand well the desire to go home when one is sick, but to do so is to put the world at risk.

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