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China unleashes virus army
- Motorola shuts down Beijing offices after staffer is infected

Beijing, May 6 (Reuters): The worst-hit district of China’s capital sent thousands of investigators on a hunt for SARS today as the World Health Organisation said the outbreak of the virus had yet to peak in the world’s most populous nation.

The army of SARS investigators was the latest sign of China’s desperate fight to contain Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, a disease which has triggered riots by villagers furious that people from infected areas have been put among them.

Motorola, the world’s second biggest mobile phone maker and one of the biggest foreign investors in China, closed its China headquarters in Beijing until Monday after a staff member there caught the disease.

“We have not seen a peak in China yet. We still have a considerable size of outbreak in Hong Kong,” UN health chief Gro Harlem Brundtland said in Brussels, adding that it was too early to say whether the outbreak was receding worldwide.

Brundtland met EU health commissioner David Byrne ahead of an emergency meeting of EU health ministers later to discuss how to prevent SARS spreading Europe.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said yesterday the crisis remained “grave” despite stepped-up prevention, detection and treatment of the disease which has struck hardest in Beijing, where 1,960 cases have now been confirmed.

“A great deal of arduous work has to be done to bring the epidemic under control at an early date,” the official Xinhua news agency quoted Wen as saying. China’s health ministry announced 138 new cases of SARS today. It also reported eight more deaths, taking the toll in the world’s most populous and worst-hit nation to 214.

In Haidian, the Beijing district with more SARS cases than any other, some 30,000 investigators in 4,000 teams made rolling inspections of businesses, neighbourhoods and work sites, district official Zhou Liangluo said.

Twenty patrols have the job of making continuous examinations of the many construction sites in the district, China’s high-technology hub where many uninsured migrant labourers work.

“For those who do not meet proper standards, they are put into overhaul and we’ll suspend their operations,” said Zhou, who took no questions and did not go into detail.

Households in the district of 2.2 million people have been given a thermometer and emergency contact numbers. Offices and businesses must install temperature-monitoring systems.

The flu-like disease has infected 4,409 people across China. Half of the deaths, 107 out of 214, have occurred in Beijing. Nearly 7,000 people have been infected worldwide.

Hong Kong said today the virus had killed six more people and infected a further nine. The death toll there is 193. Elsewhere, there were signs the disease, which has caused panic and hurt the travel industry, may be coming under control.

The Philippines reported seven more cases, taking its total to 10, but said they were all on their way to recovery.

Singapore reported its first case in three days as its death toll rose to 27. The tourism board said a damaging drop in visitor arrivals due to SARS had probably bottomed out after a record plunge of 67 per cent in April from a year earlier.

But the government said growth in Singapore and elsewhere in Asia remained hostage to the spread of SARS in China.

Thailand said health ministers from the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, which includes China and the US, would meet in Bangkok on June 28 to assess efforts to combat SARS and revive business confidence

In China, Motorola told about 1,000 employees to work from home until next Monday after 27 workers had close contact with the infected employee, spokeswoman Mary Lamb said. Other foreign firms have closed offices or pulled employees out of China, reflecting a fear of the little-understood disease.

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