GUANGZHOU: World Health Organisation (WHO) disease experts warned they could be in for the long haul as they began a probe here yesterday into the origins of an outbreak of deadly pneumonia which has killed more than 80 people around the world.
To put it simply, this is going to be a complicated matter and we could be in for a long haul, said Chris Powell, spokesman for the four-member WHO team which arrived in Guangzhou, capital of China's Guangdong province, on Thursday.
Led by American epidemiologist Dr Robert Breiman, the WHO team spent 11 days in Beijing examining case studies and data provided by Chinese authorities before being allowed to visit Guangdong, where the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) began in November.
The WHO team met officials of the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in Guangdong yesterday and will be using their expertise to set the direction for the investigation into this new emerging disease, Powell said.
Health experts investigating SARS have said it may be a virus which jumped from animals to people and the close habitation and frequent contact between the two in Guangdong may be the cause.
We think it is a strain of coronavirus that affects animal species. It does have some relationship to some animal strains of the coronavirus, but is not completely identical, said Dr Wolfgang Preiser, a member of the WHO team.
As the on-site investigation finally got underway, Singapore reported its sixth death and Hong Kong said an additional 27 people had been hospitalised.
Hong Kong is bracing for today's Ching Ming festival, when an estimated quarter of a million people are expected to travel between the former British colony and neighbouring Guangdong, the two most infected areas in the world.
Vietnam also reported another suspected case of the disease, its 60th, despite hopes earlier in the week that the outbreak had been brought under control in the country.
Thailand, meanwhile, postponed an Asia-Pacific tourism fair, the Philippines postponed a tour by a Chinese circus and the International Labour Organisation and Chinese government delayed an employment forum which was to have been held in Beijing next week.
The outbreak of SARS also continued to play havoc with the region's sports calendar as the Asian Football Confederation postponed a women's championship due to kick off in Thailand on April 17 and Lebanon scrubbed a Davis Cup tie in Hong Kong.
With the tourism sector reeling and regional airlines slashing flights to SARS-hit areas, US-based travel agents specialising in Asian destinations said they were facing financial ruin.
This is like Armageddon for the travel business, said Golden Yuan, the owner of Perfect Transportation and Travel Service in Los Angeles that specialises in group travel to China, the country worst affected by SARS.
All our group bookings have been cancelled in the last two weeks and everyone is asking for full refunds. Nobody wants to go to Asia anymore.
Meanwhile, the United States announced it would pay for US diplomats and their families to leave all posts in China as a precautionary measure, but said the Beijing embassy and US consulates in China would remain open.
SARS is believed to have originated in Guangdong in November, spread to Hong Kong in February and from there to some two dozen countries through airline travel, killing more than 80 people and infecting some 2,400 others.
Besides the 46 deaths in China, 17 people have died in Hong Kong, seven in Canada, six in Singapore, four in Vietnam and two in Thailand. AFP