Today's Papers

Reach for the SARS

The Washington Post leads with the results of studies showing the SARS virus can live on common surfaces at room temperature for hours, sometimes days, perhaps explaining the ailment’s rapid spread among individuals who had never met. The New York Timesand Los Angeles Times lead with Syria’s move to crack down on groups the United States has deemed terrorist organizations. The move fulfills a key U.S. demand—though no one is sure if it’s a temporary concession or a major diplomatic breakthrough.

According to the WP, a series of laboratory studies organized by the World Health Organization and set for release today show varying times for how long SARS can survive. One study showed the virus alive and kicking after more than 24 hours on a plastic surface at room temperature, while another found the microbe remained very much potent for as long as four days in human waste. Another study out of Japan showed the virus could survive extended periods of time in the cold. Meanwhile, on the containment front, German scientists discovered that common detergent couldn’t kill the virus, suggesting that efforts to sterilize contaminated areas may be largely ineffective.

Scientists at WHO, which will post the studies on its Web site today, say the research could be crucial to containing the epidemic. Yet, one major question about SARS remains unanswered: How much of the virus is necessary for someone to become infected? Researchers, according to the piece, might not be able to answer that question for quite some time.

A Page One piece in the NYT gives a loving pat on the back to WHO, noting in a profile of the agency’s SARS efforts that it “acted as swiftly as it could” to combat the virus. Scientists at the agency were on the case as early as November, around the time thought to be the very beginning of the outbreak. While the story never gets as breathless as a James Bond film, one gets the idea from the NYT that these workers were very 007-esque in trying to get around the lack of cooperation they were getting from the Chinese. In one instance, for example, doctors obtained evidence on the sly, including tissue samples from patients who died, thanks to a network of hospital insiders. Yet they weren’t so clever when it came to first attempts to name SARS, the piece says. The initial name of the virus: Atypical Pneumonia Without Diagnosis, which was eventually sacked in favor of a better acronym.

The LAT offers up an interesting profile of the “fever pitch of fear” that has swept Chinatowns across the country in the wake of SARS. Chinese communities have been hit hard in recent weeks by virus-related suspicions because of their closer ties to Asia. One San Francisco parent recently ordered her child to stay away from a movie popular among Chinese-American kids because “who knew what he might catch cooped up in a theater with them.” Hysteria has been particularly high in San Francisco, where one third of its 770,000 residents are Asian-American, the LAT says. However, the city has reported just one “probable” case of SARS.

While no “official” confirmation was available, Syria’s supposed crackdown reportedly prompted the closing yesterday of the Damascus-based offices of three militant anti-Israel groups: Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command. The LAT is the only paper this morning on the scene to check the validity of Syria’s concession, and a reporter on the scene in Damascus finds empty offices blocked by guards. A “nervous” Hamas official tells the paper that the group’s leadership is “out of the country,” while at the Islamic Jihad headquarters, a guard says leaders there are “traveling” but would be back “at the end of the week.”

Syria’s move came after a three-hour meeting yesterday between President Bashar Assad and Secretary of State Colin Powell, who announced the closings. Yet, the everybody notes that U.S. officials are wary of cheering over the deal just yet, since Assad has made similar promises before and not delivered. (Maybe the “Is this really a deal?” factor is also the reason the WP buries the story on Page A29, while its competitors front the news.)  According to the NYT, Syria made no promises on Hezbollah, a radical Shiite Muslim group the U.S. suspects is conducting terror operations in the region.

In Iraq, the weapons search continued yesterday, as investigators searched two nuclear facilities near Baghdad with the NYT’s Judith Miller and the WP’s Barton Gellman in tow. (Gellman actually mentions Miller—but doesn’t name her—in his story.) Yet, the papers come up with two slightly different reads on how important—or not—yesterday’s search was, with the main difference being the tone of the story. Gellman’s piece, on the front page of the WP, says investigators found the Baghdad Nuclear Research Facility and the Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Center “heavily looted” and “impossible to tell if nuclear materials were missing.” While Gellman notes that radioactive material was found at the site, Miller plays this up in her story, citing it in the lede. She also mentions something her WP competitor doesn’t: an unconfirmed report, via Army officials, that looters might have snagged samples of anthrax from one facility.

Everybody sums up the first debate of Democratic presidential candidates last night in South Carolina. For some, it was a snoozer. For others, it was a real slugfest. The NYT notes that Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean “squabbled so intensely” over their differences on the war in Iraq that the Rev. Al Sharpton had to break it up at one point. That’s right—Al Sharpton.

Meanwhile, in the NYT’s “Week in Review” section, reporter Adam Nagourney advises the prospective Dem candidates to quit comparing the 2004 presidential election to the 1992 campaign, even though both races seem very similar. Both featured presidents named Bush, two wars involving Iraq, and two sour economies. Yet, the piece notes, these are two very different presidents—and, to add more salt to the wound, nobody in this race has the “political caliber” of Bill Clinton.

This morning, the WP fronts the first of three articles looking at the business practices of the Nature Conservancy, one of the nation’s leading environmental groups. The investigation—launched well before the 9/11 attacks, according to the paper—finds some not-so-pretty details in the group’s records, including the fact that it has profited off logging forests, drilled for natural gas on the last breeding ground of an endangered bird species, and engineered a $64 million deal paving the way for “opulent houses” to be build on fragile grasslands. A sidebar also notes that the group also gave its top executive a low-interest $1.5 million loan to buy a house.

Finally, the LAT, in its Sunday magazine, looks at the “epic struggle of the future of the residential lawn.” For years, critics have scorned the lawn as “wasteful, pointless, boring and just plain dumb,” yet efforts to replace what the piece describes as the “one of the most potent icons of American life” have frequently failed. “In other words, they fought the lawn, and the lawn won,” the LAT says.