Beijing About-Face On Taiwan SARS

China said Saturday it has agreed to have World Health Organization experts travel to Taiwan to assess a worsening SARS outbreak, ending a diplomatic stalemate that the island said threatened to hurt disease-fighting efforts.

The announcement was an unprecedented reversal for China, which earlier rejected direct WHO help for Taiwan. The communist Beijing government claims the self-ruling island as its own territory and has blocked Taiwan's efforts to join the U.N. agency.

China said it wanted to help the island, which has reported eight SARS-related deaths and where cases have nearly doubled over the past week to 100.

Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council, which handles relations with Beijing, had no immediate reaction to China's announcement.

Taiwan and the mainland split in 1949 amid civil war. Beijing says the island has no right to conduct foreign affairs, such as joining the United Nations and other bodies.

In Taiwan, President Chen Shui-bian announced Saturday he was canceling a trip to Central America and the Caribbean because the SARS crisis and authorities launched a major cleanup campaign in the capital, Taipei.

On Friday, Taiwanese lawmakers passed legislation allowing prison sentences of up to three years for people who knowingly infect others with SARS. They also set up a billion-dollar fund to counter the disease.

Separately, CBS News Correspondent Barry Petersen reports SARS may provoke a political crisis in China: villagers outside Beijing are blocking roads to keep possibly contaminated city-goers out of their villages -- despite government orders not to.

Hong Kong's health chief, meanwhile, acknowledged Saturday that the territory didn't respond quickly enough to the SARS outbreak, but said it was because little was known about the disease when it first emerged.

"It's a fact we're weren't speedy enough," Health Secretary Dr. Yeoh Eng-kiong said in a radio interview. It was the most blunt admission yet by a top Hong Kong official that the reaction to SARS was tardy.

Critics say other places with outbreaks, including Singapore and Canada, were quicker than Hong Kong in imposing quarantines on people who might have been exposed.

A health department spokeswoman later said six of the 12 recovered SARS patients in Hong Kong who had fallen ill again remained hospitalized as of Friday.

Throughout Asia, officials were continuing to use extreme measures to stop the spread of the virus, which experts fear is mutating quickly.

The SARS virus has mutated into at least two forms, which could complicate efforts to develop a solid diagnosis and a vaccine, researchers said Friday.

"This rapid evolution is like that of a murderer who is trying to change his fingerprints or even his appearance to try to escape detection," said Dr. Dennis Lo, a chemical pathologist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

CBS News Correspondetn Elizabeth Kaledin reports there are various questions about the disease that are making it hard to mobilize an effective defense. The disease is unusually contagious, yet its spread thus far is restricted geographically, found in one place but not another.

Eighteen new deaths were reported Saturday in east Asia, pushing the global death toll to 436. Nine of the deaths were in mainland China and another nine in Hong Kong. Worldwide, more than 6,100 have been infected.

Authorities in Singapore arrested a man who flouted home quarantine orders and went out drinking two times, a newspaper reported Saturday.

In Vietnam, officials began isolating college students returning from China to help prevent SARS from resurfacing in the country. Vietnam was the first nation to be declared SARS-free by the WHO after suffering an outbreak.

About 135 students were placed under quarantine Friday night, said Health Minister Tran Thi Trung Chien. He said around 2,400 students returning from China were expected to be quarantined for 10 to 15 days.

Despite the growing number of SARS deaths, thousands of people have recovered from the disease. Physicians say about nine out 10 patients get better.

In Toronto, a think tank predicted lowered economic growth because of SARS, which has badly hurt the convention and tourism industry in Canada's largest city.

The Conference Board of Canada lowered its 2003 growth estimate for Toronto from 3.8 percent to 3.3 percent - or almost $700 million. Toronto is the center of the largest outbreak of the illness outside of Asia with more than 140 probable cases and all of Canada's 23 SARS deaths.

Tourism in Asia has been especially hard hit by SARS, with tourist arrivals plunging throughout the region.

Faced with a drop in visitor arrivals of up to 40 percent, Thailand was relaxing some of its recent anti-SARS moves, sparing some visitors from quarantine and wearing surgical masks if they provide health certificates.