| A worker collects completed masks at a factory in Nanjing, China. (AFP)
Bangkok, April 28 (Reuters): Outbreaks of SARS have peaked in Asia, except for China where it first emerged, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said today, offering a ray of hope that the deadly virus with no cure could be contained.
The comments by David Heymann, WHO’s chief of communicable diseases, lifted financial markets in Asia, where economies have been badly hit by the outbreaks over the past two months.
More encouraging news from the SARS battlefront, which has killed at least 326 people across the world, came from Vietnam, which today became the first infected country to be declared free of the virus.
Heymann said in Bangkok the spread of SARS had peaked in all countries known to have outbreaks, except China, which with 139 SARS deaths and more than 3,000 cases was the “unknown question” in the equation. “It seems that it has peaked in all places that we knew about on the 15th of March, except in China, and in China it’s on the increase, unfortunately,” said Heymann, in Bangkok to brief Asian leaders holding a meeting on SARS tomorrow.
The WHO issued a global alert on March 15 about SARS, which has infected 5,300 people in nearly 30 countries.
Asked if he was confident that the worldwide spread of SARS could be stopped, Heymann said: “No, we are not. We are hoping.”
“China is the key and it’s the unknown question in the whole formula, because if China cannot contain it, then it can’t be removed,” he said.
China reported today eight new deaths and 203 new cases taking the death toll to 139 and the cumulative number of cases to 3,106. While WHO offered a ray of optimism the disease was stabilising, Taiwan said it would close its borders to visitors from SARS-stricken China, Hong Kong, Canada and Singapore for two weeks and quarantine residents returning from those places.
And SARS apparently claimed its first victim in another Asian country. A man classified as a probable SARS case has died in Indonesia, a health official said, the first such death reported in the world’s fourth most populous nation. Hong Kong said today SARS killed another five people. But there were only 14 new cases, lower than the daily average of 20 to 30 reported in the past few weeks.
In Zurich, Swiss healthcare group Roche Holding AG said today it aims to launch a reliable diagnostic test for the SARS virus by the end of July, in a move that could help curb the spread of the killer disease.
“We are developing now a SARS-specific test. We believe this will be developed by the middle of June and will be on the market by the end of July,” Alexander Klauser, spokesman for the world’s biggest diagnostics company, said.
The WHO hailed the news as a welcome step forward in what has turned out to be a search more difficult than first imagined for reliable, large-scale tests that can quickly detect Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.
”They are absolutely essential in controlling these outbreaks,” WHO spokesman Dick Thompson said.
”They are a way of identifying quickly who is infected and needs to be isolated from perhaps thousands of people who are not infected but who are in isolation or quarantine,” he said.
Tests can also give health authorities insight into when patients are most infectious and the best time to administer drugs, he said.
SARS has killed at least 327 people and infected more than 5,000 since it broke out in China's Guangdong province late last year and then spread to dozens of countries.
SARS kills about six percent of the people it infects and has no known cure. An official from the WHO said on Saturday it might take years to find a vaccine.
The WHO in Geneva said Vietnam, which has had 63 infections including the deaths of five medical workers, was now free of the virus after the last reported case on April 8.
”Vietnam will come off the list today,” said WHO spokesman Dick Thompson, confirming an earlier statement by Vietnam's health ministry.
LOT TO LEARN
Heymann said there were a lot of things scientists and doctors needed to learn about the virus before its spread could be brought under control.
”We don't understand whether it is occurring in an asymptomatic form, which may be already spread around the world as occurred in AIDS, with a long incubation period.”
The outbreak is having a severe economic impact in Asia, a region that faced recession, debt defaults and currency crises during a 1997-99 economic slump.
Hotels, airlines and retailers already face slumping sales; hospitals are stretched to the breaking point and experts say the economic costs are bound to rise.
Taiwan announced its most draconian moves to date to control the virus while Beijing closed theatres and other entertainment centres.
The Asian Development Bank cut its growth forecast for the region this year to 5.3 percent, from the 5.6 percent it expected in December, due to the impact of SARS and an uncertain global economic recovery.
But assuming the deadly virus can be brought under control swiftly with minimal damage to tourism, Asian economies Ä excluding Japan Ä should grow at a faster rate of 5.9 percent in 2004, the Manila-based bank said in a regional outlook.
Canada, the only country outside Asia where people have died of SARS, says the disease will hit an economy that has long been the star performer within the Group of Seven rich industrialised countries. (additional reporting by John Ruwitch in Beijing, Jerry Norton in Indonesia and Christina Toh-Pantin in Hanoi)