Mystery Virus Ravages Hong Kong, Hopes on Vaccine
April 14, 2003 3:08 a.m. ET
HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong’s leader said SARS has not yet been brought under control, as the mystery virus that has been dubbed the “21st century disease” claimed more victims and took a mounting economic toll.
A Canadian lab offered a ray of hope that a vaccine could be developed for the virus that has now killed 132 people and infected 3,200 across the world — but health experts say it may be months, even years away.
Hong Kong leader Tung Chee-hwa told his boss, Chinese President Hu Jintao, in China’s Shenzen city that the virus had yet to be “brought under effective control” in the territory of seven million, although the nature of the disease and how to treat it was better understood, a government statement said late on Sunday.
Hu’s low-profile visit to southern Guangdong province was the strongest indication yet of how seriously the Chinese leadership views the worsening health crisis in Hong Kong.
The number of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome cases in Hong Kong has soared to 1,150 and its death toll to 40 with five more announced on Sunday — the largest jump in weeks. The flu-like virus, which often deteriorates into pneumonia, has been carried by travelers to about 20 countries in the past six weeks after first showing up in Guangdong in November. In a weekend statement released one month after issuing its first alert on the disease, the World Health Organization (WHO) sounded a warning that SARS could become a global epidemic.
“If the SARS maintains its present pathogenicity and transmissibility, SARS could become the first severe new disease of the 21st century with global epidemic potential,” David Heymann, the agency’s executive director of communicable diseases, wrote on the WHO Web Site (www.who.int/csr/sars/en/).
The ways SARS is emerging suggests great potential for rapid spread in a highly mobile, interconnected world, Heymann said.
Singapore reported three new deaths from the virus on Sunday, taking its toll to 12. It announced the quarantining of 400 staff and patients at its biggest hospital. The virus, which is new to science and has no known cure, has hit hospital staff the hardest, putting healthcare systems under strain. Health officials say they are not sure how the virus spreads, although close contact with an infected person appears to be the main method of transmission Its impact on business has been merciless. The WHO Web Site notes the disease has already caused an estimated $30 billion in losses, which could rapidly mount in a globalized economy. The illness has crippled tourism in Asia and forced airlines to cuts flights sharply. Economists say the longer the crisis lasts the deeper it will eat into the region’s economies and it could push some, including Hong Kong, back into recession.
On Sunday, Asia’s fourth-largest carrier, Cathay Pacific Airways, said it would not rule out grounding its entire passenger fleet next month if passenger numbers continue to fall. Hong Kong-based Cathay, which is carrying only a third of its usual traffic volume, said in an internal memo the company was losing US$3 million a day. “If demand falls still further, we will have to respond accordingly,” said Tony Tyler, director of corporate development.
A Canadian laboratory said on Sunday it had broken the genetic sequence behind the SARS virus.
The Michael Smith Genome Sciences Center in British Columbia said this could help speed development of a reliable diagnostic test and eventually an effective vaccine.
Canada, which has the third-largest number of SARS cases, said its death toll had risen to 13 with more than 270 probable or suspected cases of infection. Thousands have been quarantined.
Singapore reopened secondary schools on Monday after shutting all classes three weeks ago to contain the virus and university classes resumed in Hong Kong. But life in SARS-affected countries was far from normal. “We are in this for the long haul,” Singapore Health Minister Lim Hng Kian said when asked if the virus was under control. Singapore air force paramedics in camouflage fatigues, gloves and surgical face masks greet air passengers from SARS-afflicted Hong Kong and China’s Guangdong province, taking temperatures, giving a chilling appearance to one of Asia’s biggest air hubs. The 608 people under home quarantine in Singapore have closed-circuit TV cameras installed outside their doors, and must regularly respond when called on. Those who don’t risk getting an electronic tag slapped around their wrist that beeps authorities when worn outside the home, or when tampered with, after 12 people broke quarantine since late March. The first such tag was issued over the weekend.
WHO has advised against travel to southern China and Hong Kong, which has further cut arrivals in Hong Kong, one of Asia’s main financial centers and top tourist destinations.
Cathay’s warning about grounding its passenger fleet spooked other Asian airline stocks, which were down between two and four percent on Monday. Singapore Airlines, Asia’s most profitable carrier, has cut flights by 20 percent.