GUANGZHOU: Scientists probing the original outbreak in southern China of a killer pneumonia which has spread around the world and killed more than 80 people warned yesterday not to expect quick results.
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 team of World Health Organisation (WHO) experts which arrived here 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 province, where the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) began in November.
The WHO team was meeting 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.
As the on-site investigation finally got under way, the shockwaves from the outbreak continued to ripple around the world.
Thailand postponed an Asia-Pacific tourism fair scheduled for next week, the Philippines postponed an April 4-13 tour by the Grand National Circus of China and Hong Kong lashed out at Switzerland for barring Hong Kong exhibitors from a watch and jewellery fair in Basel and Zurich.
With the tourism sector reeling and more airlines slashing flights to SARS-hit China, Hong Kong and Singapore, 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.
The United States announced meanwhile that 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 nearly two dozen countries through airline travel, killing more than 80 people and infecting some 2,400 others.
Besides the deaths in China, 17 people have died in Hong Kong, seven in Canada, five in Singapore, four people in Vietnam and two in Thailand.
As Australia yesterday reported seven new suspected cases of the disease, South Korea issued a countrywide alert to trace some 200 people who may have been exposed to SARS on a recent flight from China.
They were on the same Korean Air flight from Beijing to Seoul as a Taiwanese traveller who was later confirmed as suffering from SARS.
South Korea has so far remained untouched by the SARS epidemic but health officials said it might just be a matter of time before the first case appears.
In the Philippines, where no confirmed cases have been reported but 23 people are under observation, President Gloria Arroyo warned the population yesterday to be calm but prepare for the worst.
Canada, which has been the hardest hit country outside Asia, reported a rise in the number of possible SARS cases had to 178 on Thursday from 160 on Wednesday and also sought to reassure a jittery public.
We are doing all we can to prevent SARS from claiming any more victims, said Prime Minister Jean Chretien. AFP