Health and Wellness

This hotel is infamous as ground zero for a SARS 'super spreader' in the 2003 outbreak—here's what happened

An outside view of the former Metropole Hotel in Hong Kong in October 2003.
K. Y. Cheng | South China Morning Post via Getty Images

The number of infections from the deadly coronavirus continues to grow to more than 64,000 cases around the world. And on Tuesday, a British businessman was identified as a "super spreader" of coronavirus (someone who infects an unusually large number of people) after he contracted the disease in Singapore and then traveled through multiple countries in Europe, infecting at least 11 others along the way.

This recent case has already drawn comparisons to multiple instances of super spreaders infecting large groups of people with another respiratory disease, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) during that disease's outbreak in 2003. Health officials at the time identified five different super spreaders who helped the spread of the SARS outbreak that infected over 8,000 people, killing 774 of them.

One of those cases involved a Chinese respiratory doctor who spread the disease to seven other people during a one-night hotel stay in Hong Kong. Those seven people all happened to stay on the same floor of the same hotel as the super spreader, Dr. Liu Jianlun, before several of them traveled to other countries, helping to give the disease a larger global footprint.

Now, roughly 17 years later, that hotel is still remembered as the infamous ground zero for one of the worst global disease outbreaks of the century.

Spreading SARS

In February 2003, then 64-year-old Dr. Liu Jianlun checked into Room 911 of what was then known as the Metropole Hotel, a 487-room, three-star hotel located in Hong Kong's Kowloon district, according to the WHO's chronology of events.

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Liu had been working in a hospital in Southern China where SARS patients were being treated and he'd started developing some respiratory symptoms a few days before traveling to Hong Kong for his nephew's wedding, The Washington Post reported in May 2003. But after his chest x-ray came back clear, the doctor decided he was clear of the disease and healthy enough to travel.

At that time, the SARS outbreak had been mostly contained to mainland China, but Liu would unknowingly help the disease spread to multiple new countries and continents.

By the time Liu checked out of the hotel after just one night, he'd already infected seven other people, all of whom also stayed on the Metropole's ninth floor. (Some investigators believed that Liu might have either coughed or vomited in the ninth floor hallway and that's how the disease spread to other guests on his floor.)

Among them were a Chinese-American businessman who left the Metropole hotel to fly from Shanghai to Hanoi, Vietnam. That man, Johnny Chen, would die in a Hanoi hospital within a month after passing on the SARS virus to several members of the hospital staff, the BBC reported.

Another guest of the Metropole's ninth floor was a 78-year-old Canadian tourist who returned to Toronto a few days later and died less than two weeks after that, ultimately spreading SARS to roughly 60 more people in Canada and also killing her 44-year-old son, according to The Globe and Mail.

Other guests infected by Liu included three women from Singapore who also stayed on the ninth floor and contracted the disease before taking it back to Singapore. The three women were all soon hospitalized and ultimately survived, but one of them reportedly spread the disease to roughly 195 people.

Liu himself never made it to his nephew's wedding, instead checking himself into Hong Kong's Kwong Wah Hospital the day after he arrived in the city. He remained in the hospital until he died less than two weeks later. He also infected one doctor and five nurses, all of whom eventually recovered, according to the Post.

The WHO eventually estimated that roughly 4,000 of the world's total SARS cases (about half) during that outbreak could be traced back to Liu's stay at the Metropole Hotel. News reports around the world named the hotel as a SARS hotspot and a ground zero for the disease that spread across the globe after Liu's stay.

Metropole no more

Today, the hotel remains open but it operates under a different name. It's now called the Metropark Hotel Kowloon and the hotel's website unsurprisingly contains no references to the 2003 SARS outbreak.

CNBC Make It reached out to the hotel's management for comment and did not receive a reply.

In 2003, the hotel's manager reportedly contemplated the idea of turning either Room 911, where Liu stayed, or even the entire ninth floor into "a museum" memorializing the SARS outbreak, but that never came to pass, according to local newspaper the Taipei Times. (In fact, the Taipei Times even reported in 2004 that the hotel had renumbered some of the rooms on the ninth floor so that what would have been Room 911 had been changed to Room 913.)

Despite the changes, the hotel's ties to history haven't seemed to escape people's memories, as multiple posts on Tripadvisor have mentioned the fact that the hotel's name changed in the wake of the SARS outbreak nearly two decades ago.

In 2009, another Hong Kong hotel owned by the Metropark's management company dealt with the fallout of a guest bringing the city's first reported case of the H1N1 virus to Hong Kong, resulting in a quarantine of the hotel's 300 guests, according to CNN.

"Revenue loss and image damage is a concern," Benny Ng, an operations manager for the hotel chain told CNN at the time. "When an incident like this happens, obviously, it will have a little impact on the business."

Ng also noted at the time that neither the H1N1 or SARS outbreaks were caused by anything the hotels did "and has nothing to do with the hygiene or the facilities of the property."

Infection hotspots today

Today, health officials around the world are on the lookout for hotspots where multiple cases of the current coronavirus, or COVID-19, are popping up in one location. Dozens of people were evacuated from the same apartment building in Hong Kong this week after multiple residents were found to be infected, and Chinese authorities quarantined 10,000 people in the city of Tianjin after tracing one-third of the city's coronavirus cases to a single department store, according to The New York Times.

And COVID-19 super spreader Steve Walsh, the aforementioned British businessman, contracted the coronavirus at a conference at Singapore's Grand Hyatt hotel in January before traveling to France, where he spread the disease to multiple fellow guests at a ski chalet in the French Alps.

As of Friday, cases of COVID-19 have been discovered globally in roughly 28 countries. So far, there are only 15 confirmed cases of the disease in the U.S. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the best way for people to avoid infection includes washing your hands frequently and avoiding close contact with people who are sick.

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