Tracing the SARS outbreak back to its origin: 17 guests at The Metropole Hotel.

On 21 February 2003, a 64-year-old doctor from Guangdong in China checked into room 911 of the Metropole Hotel in Hong Kong to attend a family wedding. The next morning he woke up with a fever and admitted himself to the nearest hospital. Over the subsequent days, 16 of the guests who stayed on the 9th floor of the hotel that night boarded flights home, taking the virus with them to the Philippines, Singapore, Canada, Vietnam, Australia and the USA. A Cluster of 17 Cases is an interactive installation exploring the first moments of the outbreak.

In 2018 Blast Theory were the first ever artists-in-residence at the World Health Organization in Geneva. A Cluster of 17 Cases is inspired by the stories like the 17 unsuspecting people who stayed on the 9th floor of the hotel on the night of Feb 21, 2003. These 17 people were subsequently identified as spreading the SARS virus to at least 546 people around the globe.

As part of our residency, we made three trips in early 2018, to interview key staff at the Strategic Health Operations Centre (SHOC), which monitors epidemics and pandemics across the world and coordinates international collaboration in response. We explored how epidemiologists studied the movements of each of the guests in the Metropole Hotel that night; even conducting tests to trace airflow between rooms. You can see a short film of our residency, below.

The installation comprises a vitrine housing a scale model, where you are invited to use audio handsets to listen to two accounts of the SARS outbreak. The first is a fictional first person account based on the details of those who stayed at the hotel that night. The second plays audio of an interview with Dr. Mike Ryan, Operational Coordinator for the World Health Organization’s SARS response in 2003, who shared his insights into dealing with uncertainty and the challenges of declaring a global alert in the face of limited information.

You can read about another Blast Theory work examining public health and pandemics – Spit Spreads Death: The Parade. The parade took place in Philadelphia in 2019 and marked the first ever public commemoration those people around the world, who lost their lives in the 1918-19 influenza pandemic.

A Cluster of 17 Cases is exhibited as part of Contagious! at the Rijksmuseum Boerhaave from 16 July 2020 to 9 January 2022. The work has previously been exhibited at the Museum of the City of New York in 2018 and at Tai Kwun in Hong Kong in 2019.

The project is supported by Wellcome as part of Contagious Cities; it was presented at the Museum of the City of New York in 2018 and at Tai Kwun in Hong Kong in 2019.

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