msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 12/29/2003 11:33:03 AM ET 2003-12-29T16:33:03

None of the 42 people who were quarantined after coming in close contact with China’s first suspected SARS patient in five months has shown symptoms of the disease, a government newspaper said Monday.

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China announced the suspected case — its first since July — on Saturday and said the 32-year-old man was hospitalized in Guangdong, the southern province where the disease first emerged.

The Health Ministry had informed the World Health Organization that the patient’s temperature was now normal and he appeared to be doing well, Beijing-based WHO spokesman Roy Wadia said

The prompt announcement was in striking contrast to the SARS outbreak, when Beijing was criticized for its sluggish response and failure to respond to appeals for information and cooperation.

People quarantined after having contact with the new suspected case are expected to finish medical observation within a week, the China Daily said. It said 32 of those people are medical workers.

The discovery prompted China to step up screening for possible cases of severe acute respiratory syndrome, ordering train stations and airports to check travelers for fever.

Diagnosis expected in days
The WHO sent experts to Guangzhou in southern China on Monday to help doctors test a suspected SARS patient, the country’s first in months, and said it expected a diagnosis within days.

If confirmed, the infection, of a 32-year-old freelance TV producer, would be the first not linked to laboratory accidents since the WHO declared a global SARS outbreak over in July.

But the U.N. health agency said it had no plans to issue any travel or trade advisories.

“Even if he is positive, the precautionary measures have been taken,” the WHO’s SARS team leader in Beijing, Julie Hall, told reporters. “If he turns out to be negative, then it shows the system is working.”

She said the Chinese Health Ministry was working closely with the WHO. A joint team of experts had been sent to Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong province which borders Hong Kong, to probe the case and inspect precautionary measures.

At the government’s invitation, a WHO laboratory specialist from Australia had also arrived in China to review case data.

“This case, at this moment in time, from the investigations that have been done to date, there’s no obvious way in which he could have caught the SARS virus,” Hall said of the suspect.

After initial tests produced a jumble of conflicting results, experts needed more run-throughs at different laboratories using different materials, reagents and samples, she said.

It was hard to predict the timing of a diagnosis, Hall said, but added: “It’s likely that it will be days rather than weeks.” A Health Ministry official agreed it would take “several days.”

Italy said Sunday it was reinstating SARS checks for passengers arriving from China at airports in Rome and Milan.

In Guangdong, the apartment complex where the suspected SARS patient lived in the provincial capital of Guangzhou is being disinfected, the official Xinhua News Agency said.

The World Health Organization asked China to send samples from the man to a foreign laboratory for testing. The agency said that after tests carried out in China, “results at this stage are inconclusive.”

“WHO has suggested that samples be sent overseas for international verification of the results,” the agency said in a statement.

Patient stable, source a 'mystery'
The suspected case, a freelance producer at a government television station, was hospitalized Dec. 20 with a headache and fever, according to Xinhua. He was transferred Wednesday to a quarantine ward and declared a suspected SARS case on Friday.

On Sunday, the man was in stable condition and his temperature had been normal for the fourth straight day, according to China’s Health Ministry.

SARS killed 774 people worldwide and sickened nearly 8,100 before subsiding in June.

The flu-like illness claimed 349 lives on China’s mainland and more than 5,000 were sickened. Beijing declared the mainland’s last 12 patients free of the disease in July.

What the source would be for the new suspected case is a mystery, WHO said. It said he had no known contact with high-risk groups such as health workers or animal handlers before becoming sick.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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