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Virus clue hunt at fountainhead

Hong Kong, April 3 (Reuters): A World Health Organisation (WHO) team hunted for clues in southern China, the origin of a global virus outbreak, as Thailand vowed today to quarantine plane loads of tourists if anyone on board displayed symptoms.

In Hong Kong, which now has the largest number of reported daily cases of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), the government said more children and school staff had been diagnosed with the disease and that schools would remain shut.

The government announced 26 new infections today, bringing the total to 734. One more person died, raising the death toll to 17.

With no medical proof yet of what causes the deadly, flu-like disease, or how it is spread, the WHO has issued a worldwide warning against travel to China’s Guangdong province and neighbouring Hong Kong. More countries also announced new precautions.

Thailand, a top tourist destination, said visitors from high-risk countries would be quarantined for 14 days if anyone on board their aircraft was found with SARS symptoms.

The virus has infected 2,300 people across 18 countries. Nearly 80 people have died.

Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous nation, declared SARS an infectious disease today, allowing tough regulations. Health minister Ahmad Sujudi said three people were being treated as though they had SARS.

After being criticised for its silence on the disease, China allowed the WHO visit to Guangdong yesterday, but the UN body does not appear to have unrestricted access.

“At the moment, it’s basically up for negotiation,” WHO spokesman Chris Powell said from Guangdong.

Chinese health minister Zhang Wenkang declared China a safe place to travel today, but amplified his earlier statements that SARS was under control in China. “I said it was under effective control. I didn’t say it was stamped out,” he told a news conference. “Society is stable and it is safe to work, live and travel.”

The loss of business and a slump in tourist arrivals in Asia are already being seen by some industries, such as retail and airlines, as having a bigger negative impact than the Iraq war.

Germany was the latest major economy today to urge its citizens to postpone non-essential visits to Guangdong and Hong Kong. India said it was on alert for cases at airports.

The Taiwan Association of Travel Agents said about 98 per cent of 1,138 tour groups to China have been cancelled in April, when many Taiwanese traditionally visit their ancestors’ graves for the Tomb Sweeping festival on April 5.

“SARS hit us really, really hard,” chairman Bright Yang said today. “People are in a panic. They don’t want to fly. They don’t want to go anywhere.”

In Hong Kong, where 16 people have died and more than 700 have been infected, the rapid spread of the virus has turned the once-bustling city into something of a ghost town.

Desperate to draw customers, more shopkeepers are now selling detergents and masks. Popular karaoke bars and restaurants are almost empty.

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