Spread of SARS virus appears to slow down in China's capital

BEIJING -- The spread of SARS appeared to be slowing in Beijing, but the next leader of the World Health Organization said Friday it was too early to say whether the disease had peaked there yet.

Even so, authorities in hard-hit Beijing said 80,000 students will gather in the Chinese capital next month for college entrance examinations. City officials also lifted quarantines on six hospitals, two residential communities and four construction sites where SARS cases had been discovered. More than 18,600 people suspected of having come into contact with SARS patients remained under isolation.

"The epidemic shows signs of declining," said Liang Wannian, deputy director-general of Beijing's the city Health Bureau.

China announced six more fatalities and 118 new hospitalizations -- two of the deaths and 48 of the hospitalizations in Beijing.

Earlier, a senior Beijing official said new SARS hospital admissions had fallen from a peak of 70 to 80 per day last month to an average of 30 to 40 per day over the past week.

Meeting with officials in Beijing, WHO's next leader, Dr. Jong-wook Lee, wouldn't say whether Beijing's epidemic might soon pass.

"It's too early to say whether it's peaked or not peaked, so we have to wait," said Lee, a South Korean set to become WHO director-general in July.

The WHO also said the danger of SARS could be shifting to China's poorer countryside, where a shortage of hospitals and doctors could make an outbreak disastrous. A four-member WHO team was in the northern province of Hebei, which borders Beijing, investigating a spreading outbreak there.

New infections in Taiwan

As the mystery over SARS origins and behavior deepened, the global toll climbed to at least 515 dead and more than 7,000 infected in over 25 countries on Friday.

New infections appeared to accelerate in Taiwan, with the island reporting 18 new cases, its largest one-day jump since the outbreak began there two months ago.

Authorities ordered a housing complex in Taipei to be sealed off after the death of a resident, and feared SARS may have spread from capital Taipei to the island's south.

The rise brought the total of cases to 149 and came a day after the World Health Organization advised against all but essential travel to the capital Taipei. The death toll in Taiwan still stood at 14. Some 26 patients have recovered.

Hong Kong reported only two deaths and six new cases -- the lowest daily infection increase so far and a further sign the disease may be on the way out.

Meanwhile, work by Singapore's Genome Institute, published in Britain's The Lancet medical journal on Friday, indicated that the SARS virus is surprisingly stable and not rapidly mutating. This could challenge theories that it jumped from farm animals to humans not long before its first outbreak was reported in southern China in November.

It could also mean the virus is older than previously thought, said Earl Brown, a virologist at the University of Ottawa in Canada.

A Singapore court for the first time invoked tough new anti-SARS laws and imprisoned a man for six months for flouting a home quarantine order. The man, who has since been cleared of any infection, was arrested when he went out drinking.

Malaysia reported its first new probable SARS case in two weeks on Friday, a day after health authorities declared that the worst of its outbreak was over. The patient is a 31-year-old hotel restaurant chef who recently worked in neighboring Singapore, officials said.

In Manila, the Asian Development Bank counted the economic costs of SARS and cut its growth forecasts for Asia again.

Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan would be the hardest hit in 2003 if the impact of SARS extends until the end of June, the bank said. Economic growth in Hong Kong would decline by 1.8 percentage points to 0.8 percent; in Singapore by 1.1 points to 1.9 percent; and in Taiwan by 0.9 points to 2.8 percent.

Responding to the economic fallout, Chinese tax officials ordered fee exceptions for businesses in entertainment, transportation and hospitality that have been hard hit by forced closures, travel bans and other measures to control the spread of SARS, Xinhua said.