International health officials blamed a breach in lab security Monday for China’s latest emergence of SARS as Chinese authorities kept nearly 500 people quarantined in a struggle to contain the virus before a major holiday puts millions of travelers on the road.
Two confirmed cases of severe acute respiratory syndrome and six suspected ones have been announced in China over the past week, with all of them linked to people who worked in a SARS laboratory in Beijing.
Authorities have quarantined people who came in contact with those cases, isolating 337 people in the capital and 133 in Anhui province, the official China Daily said. Government investigators also fanned out to examine labs that do SARS research, the newspaper said.
The World Health Organization said it was dispatching a team to find out how two workers could have become infected at the Beijing lab and then pass SARS to others. There were clearly “some sort of errors, mistakes” in laboratory security, WHO’s Western Pacific regional director Shigeru Omi told a news conference in Manila.
The May Day vacation beginning this weekend poses a dilemma for Chinese leaders. They fear that having so many travelers on the move could spread SARS again but also worry that canceling or curtailing the holiday could cause serious economic damage.
“SARS surveillance tightened ahead of Golden Week,” the Communist Party newspaper People’s Daily said.
At the border crossing with North Korea in the northern Chinese city of Dandong, truck drivers entering China stuck their heads out of windows into the rain Monday so screeners could check their temperatures with disposable thermometers.
Still, health officials prescribed calm. All of the suspected cases announced over the weekend have been traced back to a single patient, the government said, suggesting the problem was still tightly confined and not a general outbreak.
“Since we have put 470 people under quarantine, we think this has been a very effective measure,” said Chinese Vice Health Minister Zhu Qingsheng, visiting Malaysia. “Up to now there haven’t been any more infections besides the earlier ones. We believe this means the measures are effective.”
SARS first emerged in southern China’s Guangdong Province in November 2002. It triggered a global health crisis, killing 774 people around the world and infecting more than 8,000. In China, 349 people died.
First death from SARS this year
The suspected cases include the father, mother, aunt and roommate of a 20-year-old confirmed SARS patient in Beijing with the surname of Li, the Health Ministry said. The other confirmed case is a 26-year-old medical student with the surname of Song in the southern province of Anhui.
And in what could be the world’s first SARS death this year, Song’s mother died last week in Anhui. Though Chinese authorities said she had a heart condition, WHO said she had “clinical symptoms ... compatible with SARS.”
Song worked at the Beijing lab — the virus control institute at China’s Centers for Disease Control — and is believed to have infected her mother after returning to Anhui.
Song was confirmed to have SARS and was treated last month at a Beijing hospital, where she came into contact with Li, the nurse who is also now a confirmed SARS case, the ministry said. A 31-year-old Beijing man who worked at the lab has been listed as a suspected case.
Song “has been recovering” and her temperature was normal Sunday, the official Xinhua News Agency said.
WHO said any transmissions so far have appeared to be from very close contact, and that the virus is yet not spreading through the general public as happened last year.
Omi called for vigilance, noting that Song traveled between Beijing and Anhui three times with a fever and that “many people have been exposed or potentially exposed.”
He said the China’s situation needs “more attention” than other SARS cases that have occurred since last year — two laboratory-acquired cases in Taiwan and Singapore and four cases in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong. Those patients all recovered.
During the May Day holiday, millions of Chinese travel within their borders. Many go to Huangshan, a popular scenic mountain resort in Anhui. The province’s Tourism Administration has issued an “emergency circular” and called for “immediate action to prevent the spread of SARS.”