Beijing Schools Stay Shuttered By SARS

China announced Sunday that elementary and middle schools in Beijing will remain closed for two more weeks to help prevent the spread of SARS, affecting over a million students, as Taipei's mayor warned that violators of home quarantine orders would be strictly punished.

Two doctors from the World Health Organization arrived in Taiwan to help the island cope with its worsening SARS outbreak after China's government put aside politics and agreed to the visit. The number of probable SARS cases in Taiwan has surged in the past 10 days to 116, including eight fatalities.

Twelve new SARS deaths were reported Sunday in east Asia — seven in mainland China and five in Hong Kong. But the number of new infections in Hong Kong was just eight, as numbers of new cases in the territory decline steadily.

Globally, severe acute respiratory syndrome has killed 448 and sickened more than 6,300.

A Malaysian freighter ship heading for mainland China from Thailand made an emergency stop in Hong Kong on Sunday after 10 Indian sailors aboard complained of SARS-like symptoms.

Health officials in white full-body protective gear boarded the Bunga Melawis Satu which was moored off a remote Hong Kong island. But the sick seamen underwent tests and doctors said they were clear of SARS.

Meanwhile, hospital officials said none of the 12 recovered Hong Kong SARS patients who became ill again had suffered relapses, as had been feared earlier.

Eight have already been discharged, and although the patients had reported symptoms including fevers that are common in SARS victims, all were sick with something else, said Dr. Liu Shao-haei, senior executive manager of the Hospital Authority.

Announcing the decision to keep schools in Beijing closed, the official Xinhua News Agency said authorities planned to hold correspondence classes for students using TV broadcasts and the Internet.

The schools, which were closed about two weeks ago, had been scheduled to reopen on May 7 providing the SARS outbreak was under control.

In addition to the five deaths, China also reported 163 new cases Sunday, the smallest number in the past week. The mainland's total number of infections stands at 4,125.

Taipei's mayor warned on Sunday that violators of quarantine orders will be punished after a high school student who broke quarantine to attend a tutoring school became ill with SARS-like symptoms, forcing the school's closure.

"Home quarantine is a serious matter," Mayor Ma Ying-jeou said. "We will not allow anyone to ignore the order. They must be punished."

More than 14,000 Taiwanese have been ordered quarantined at home. Violators will be quarantined in a military camp and could be fined up to 60,000 new Taiwan dollars (US$1,700).

China agreed Saturday to let World Health Organization doctors visit Taiwan, after initially rejecting WHO help for the island.

China and Taiwan split amid civil war in 1949, and Beijing claims Taiwan as its own territory. It has blocked Taiwan's efforts to join the U.N. agency.

In Australia, a Qantas flight attendant was being treated at a Sydney hospital for suspected SARS, a hospital spokesman said Sunday.

Australia's national carrier said it was contacting more than 350 passengers and crew who flew with her on a flight from Singapore last Sunday.

Despite the new deaths and cases, there were encouraging developments in the race to find a cure for the new disease.

Scientists at the U.S. Army's biodefense labs in Maryland have discovered one category of antiviral drugs already available in pharmacies that has had promising results against SARS — the natural infection-fighting protein interferon.

Another type of drugs called protease inhibitors — chemical cousins of medicines used against AIDS — also stopped the SARS virus in initial laboratory tests.

While scientists have yet to test the drugs on humans, they are exultant that their search has so rapidly turned up leads for more elaborate future experiments.

SARS has also hit sports, resulting in the cancellation of numerous international events. It could have a long-reaching impact on the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, as more competitions are canceled in China's capital, denying Chinese sports officials a chance to learn how to stage big athletic events.

On Saturday, soccer's governing body, FIFA, announced that the Women's World Cup will be moved from China because of SARS. The event was to be held there from Sept. 23 to Oct. 11.

The announcement followed cancellations of the women's ice hockey world championship and track cycling world championships in Asia.