THE BIGGEST NON-HUMAN casualty of severe acute respiratory syndrome's spread this spring was the American Association for Cancer Research annual meeting, which was scheduled for April 5 to 9 in Toronto. As many as 16,000 attendees were expected.

AACR made the announcement just two days before the conference was to start, calling the decision difficult but necessary. Many of the attendees were backing out of the event for fear that they would infect their own patients. Within two weeks, the association had rebooked the meeting for July 11 to 14 at the Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C.

Bring on the Lawyers

AACR has retained John S. Foster, CHME, Esq., attorney and counselor at law, Foster, Jensen & Gulley, LLC, Atlanta, to help sort out the legal end. Foster says that the Toronto Convention and Visitors Association sent the AACR a letter stating that if the meeting was not rescheduled in Toronto, the estimated damages to the convention center and 21 hotels that had contracts would come to $6.1 million Canadian. “The AACR is exploring all of its options, and has not decided what its position will be,” Foster said at press time.

In an e-mail to the MIMlist, an industry listserv, Foster said he thought that AACR's situation may fall under an academic treatise, called a Restatement of Contracts, which is not law but is widely used when arguing legal cases.

Foster wrote: “The Restatement of Contracts (Second), §261 states as follows: ‘When, after a contract is made, a party's performance is made impracticable without his fault by the occurrence of an event, the non-occurrence of which was a basic assumption on which the contract was made, his duty to render that performance is discharged, unless the language or the circumstances indicate the contrary.’

“Clearly,” Foster said, “the SARS epidemic seems to fall under this doctrine because it is a supervening act or occurrence not reasonably foreseen by the parties before the contract(s) were signed that now makes performance more difficult and potentially harmful. Obviously, the business community in Toronto does not see it that way and its interests need to be considered as well.”

Cancellations in China

Another smaller, but important, meeting also fell victim to SARS: The New England Journal of Medicine had planned to co-sponsor a group of 10 infectious disease specialists traveling to Xi'An, China, in mid-April as part of an educational program on HIV and AIDS. The 10 specialists were scheduled to train 50 general physicians at the provincial level; in turn, those doctors would pass their knowledge on to 10 district-level physicians, who would then each train an additional 10 practitioners at the community level. The organizers of the session, which included the China Medical Tribune and Harvard Medical International, had hoped the sessions would result in 5,000 physicians being trained within a year.

All that came to a halt once the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control started issuing warnings about the threat in China. “At the same time, the Chinese government issued a ban on public gatherings of large numbers of people,” says Jennifer Goodwin, regional manager of emerging markets for the NEJM and an organizer of the meeting. “That raised the level of seriousness in everyone's mind.” The three sponsoring groups ultimately decided to postpone the sessions indefinitely.

Penalties for canceling the event have been minimal, thanks to a good relationship between the Chinese partner and the Xi'an facility. Goodwin, taking into account the threat of war, had purchased refundable airline tickets for the U.S. participants and staff traveling to China. But one of the participants had planned to bring his family along and bought nonrefundable tickets. United Airlines allowed him to cancel the tickets with a fee, and the Journal decided to reimburse the expense. Under the circumstances, “we thought that was a good gesture,” Goodwin says.

Goodwin learned a lesson. “If you're aware that your speakers or participants are bringing family, you should clearly state up front that you won't be responsible for cancellation fees for the accompanying person, or you need to factor a cushion into your budget if you will be responsible,” she says.