SARS Outbreak ‘Grave,’ China Leader Says
BEIJING (AP) _ Premier Wen Jiabao said the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome in China was ``grave″ _ a departure from earlier assurances that the illness was under control in the nation where it is suspected to have emerged.
Meanwhile, progress was reported on another front: Scientists in Canada announced Sunday that they had identified the genetic code of the virus suspected of causing SARS _ a surprisingly rapid achievement that is the first step toward a diagnostic test and possible vaccine.
The number of reported SARS fatalities surged to 144 on Monday, with Hong Kong reporting seven more and the World Health Organization announcing four more deaths in China.
Many of the fatalities have been elderly people or patients suffering from other chronic health problems, such as heart or kidney disease. But six people deaths reported in Hong Kong over the weekend ranged in age from 35 to 52 and had no prior health problems.
Hospital Authority spokeswoman Elinda Luk said officials were investigating what had happened. Doctors in Hong Kong on Monday started prescribing heavier doses of medicine during the early stages of SARS to try to cure people before they have to receive intensive care.
Worldwide, about 3,000 people have confirmed or suspected SARS infections. Most cases have been in Asia, where worried governments have tightened the screening of passengers at airports and invoked strict quarantine rules.
In Canada, the hardest hit country outside Asia, scientists at the British Columbia Cancer Agency in Vancouver worked 24 hours a day for six days to sequence the genetic code of the virus suspected of causing SARS.
Researchers reported that the gene sequence suggests a previously unknown coronavirus unrelated to any known human or animal viruses.
Their rapid completion was an ``extraordinary step,″ said Dick Thompson, a spokesman for the World Health Organization in Geneva, which has tracked the spread of SARS.
Global health authorities suspect SARS emerged in China, where the communist government has been accused of failing to release enough information about the outbreak.
The premier, Wen, warned that China’s economy, international image and social stability might feel the impact of the disease, the state-run Xinhua News Agency said.
``Much progress has been made in combating the disease ... but the overall situation remains grave,″ Xinhua quoted Wen as saying Sunday at a national meeting on SARS.
The comments, carried by newspapers on Monday, were a striking change from recent government assurances and were the highest-level admission that SARS is a threat to China, whose official death toll from the mysterious illness on the mainland hit 60 over the weekend.
China has reported more than 1,300 cases of infection and 64 deaths, most of them in the southern province of Guangdong, where the first cases emerged in November.
At the meeting Sunday, Wen called for stepped up scrutiny of planes, boats and trains, and for passengers believed to infected to be quarantined, Xinhua said.
Beijing has been criticized abroad and by ordinary Chinese for its slow release of information on the spread of SARS and how its people can protect themselves.
Until recently, Chinese state media reported little on SARS, usually running brief items that cited official statements that the disease was under control. Journalists at state media were ordered to avoid independent reporting on the outbreak.
Although scientists have yet to isolate the cause of SARS and find a cure, most sufferers recover with prompt medical attention. About 4 percent of those infected have died, and doctors have said that patients with aggravating illnesses appear most at risk.
However, health officials in Hong Kong said Monday they were trying to figure out why six relatively young SARS patients with no aggravating illnesses have died in recent days.
Many of the territory’s other fatalities have been elderly people or patients suffering from other chronic health problems, such as heart disease or kidney disease.
Six of eight deaths reported over the weekend were people ranging in age from 35 to 52, and Hospital Authority spokeswoman Elinda Luk said Monday that officials were investigating.
The senior executive manager of Hong Kong’s Hospital Authority, Dr. Liu Shao-haei, said Monday that some of the younger patients came to the hospital when they were already in a serious condition and their conditions worsened even after they received intensive care.
Separately, a Hong Kong lawmaker on Monday criticized the government for allowing the transfer of SARS patient James Salisbury, 52, of Orem, Utah, from China to Hong Kong, where he was dead on arrival at a hospital.
``He was not a Hong Kong resident,″ pro-democracy lawmaker Albert Ho said during a legislative panel on SARS. ``He was not a Chinese citizen. Why did we take him in under this circumstance? It was very unfair to our health workers.″
A friend, David Westbrook, said Chinese authorities agreed to move Salisbury to avoid the death of a foreigner from severe acute respiratory syndrome on the mainland.