Author: Yogi Schulz

As Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) spread beyond its initial outbreak in China, health and research organizations are applying technology to search for its cause, to identify possible diagnostic tests and to develop potential treatments for the disease.

Various technologies help to combat SARS and other similar diseases.  Here’s an overview.

SARS Screening

To screen airline passengers for SARS, airport staff are using thermal imaging camera systems.  These cameras measure the body heat we all give off as infrared radiation to detect the elevated body temperatures that accompany many diseases including SARS.  Some of the cameras look like regular video cameras while others look like sawed-off hair dryers with a small screen.  On the screen, disembarking passengers look like terrorists wearing Balaclavas.  Body temperature ranges are displayed by the image processing software as green, yellow or red.  Passengers who come up red are re-tested by a nurse, asked some more questions and perhaps ushered into quarantine.

According to Ken Waters, the Sales Manger for Flir Systems, one of the suppliers whose equipment is being tested by Health Canada, the camera requires less than one second to determine the temperature of a person.  “Speed is important,” says Jon W. Chynoweth, the Vice President of Sales & Marketing at Mikron Infrared “because tired passengers disembarking from a long flight will be irritable and in no mood to be held up further.”

Thermal imaging integrates television and computer technology to help contain communicable diseases like SARS.

Dissemination of Medical Findings

During the SARS outbreak, medical findings are being distributed around the globe at the speed of the Internet.  This speed is enabling the medical community to remain abreast of developments and accelerate scientific research at an unprecedented rate.

For example, in March 2003, the World Health Organization (WHO) asked 11 laboratories to participate in a collaborative research project on SARS diagnosis.  Laboratory staff share electron microscopic pictures of the coronavirus, sequences of genetic material for identification and bio-medical test results from patients.  The coronavirus is widely believed to cause SARS.  Daily assessments of research results support immediate refinement of investigative strategies.


To help medical practitioners confirm the diagnosis of SARS, the Department of Diagnostic Radiology and Organ Imaging at the Chinese University of Hong Kong has posted chest x-ray images of SARS patients at its web site.  These images are invaluable in helping medical practitioners differentiate pneumonia, which exhibits similar symptoms, from SARS.  The accompanying High Resolution Computed Tomography (HRCT) images are displayed using the Windows Media Player.  For those of us who usually use the Media Player to watch movie trailers, these video images demonstrate a much more important application of this software.


These Internet technologies make text, graphic and video information available with a timeliness that is not possible using fax or courier.  This speed enhances collaboration among medical researcher teams to accelerate the development of SARS tests and treatment.

Laboratory Technology

An important technology being used in the race to contain and eventually treat SARS is a laboratory technique called Polymerase Chain Reaction or PCR.  PCR rapidly replicates a single DNA molecule into many billions of identical molecules.  In the case of SARS, PCR generates analyzable quantities of the coronavirus’s genetic material.  Samples of the genetic material are compared to the genetic material of other coronavirus strains to improve our understanding of how the virus was transmitted and to determine how and at what pace the virus is mutating.

“Identifying the genetic sequence of a new virus is important to efforts to treat or prevent it,” said Dr. Julie Gerberding director of the United States Center for Disease Control (CDC) in a press release announcing the completion of sequencing the genes of the coronavirus.  Sequencing is the summary term for the laboratory techniques, including PCR, that are used to determine the precise order of the four different nucleotides that make up a strand of DNA.

Understanding the genes that a virus possesses on its DNA helps researchers classify the virus and begin to explore approaches to disrupting its metabolic and reproductive functions.  That’s a polite phrase for determining how to kill the virus with a medicine or a vaccine without hurting its human carrier.

Laboratory technologies have become critical in medical research to find cures for diseases like SARS.


Multi-disciplinary teams, engaged in the search for a treatment for SARS, are applying information technology and bio-medical technology with unprecedented speed to save lives.


Calgary Health RegionDoug Fraser


Newborn Twins Isolated in TorontoMedical resident believed to have SARS was present at birth

Health Canada

Media Inquiries:

Farah Mohamed

Office of Anne McLellan

Minister of Health

(613) 957-1694

Health Canada National Microbiology Laboratory

Dr. Frank Plummer, Scientific Director of the Health Canada National Microbiology Laboratory

World Health

U.S. Centres for Disease

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

CDC Lab Sequences Genome of New Coronavirus

Singapore, Hong Kong Use Thermal Imaging To Detect SARS

Radiological Appearances of Recent Cases of Atypical Pneumonia in Hong Kong

Department of Diagnostic Radiology and Organ Imaging at the Faculty of Medicine of the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK)

HRCT – high resolution computed tomography

Association of Public Health Laboratories

SARS: Temperature and Temperature Sensor Related News

Computerized Thermal Imaging, Inc.


Polymerase chain reaction

SARS face masks

First peer-reviewed SARS genome sequence appears in Science

Canadian scientists from the British Columbia Cancer Agency Genome Sciences Center, the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg, the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control and the University of Victoria are credited with producing the first genome sequence of the coronavirus.

AffymetrixMakers of the GeneChip