Secret Weapon Vs. Taiwan's SARS

Taiwan's President Chen Shui-bian wears a mask for the first time since the beginning of the SARS outbreak as he has his temperature checked before entering the Sung Shan Military Hospital in Taipei Monday, May 19, 2003.
Fearing its SARS epidemic has yet to peak, Taiwan said Tuesday a secretive military laboratory — once believed to have been a biological weapons center — will help find a vaccine.

The world death toll stood at 662 with more than 7,800 people who have been infected — mostly in Asia. The number of new cases of severe acute respiratory syndrome reported daily has been declining steadily from a high of more than 150 nationwide a few weeks ago.

However, Taiwan reported 12 new SARS deaths Tuesday and said it had 39 new cases of infection over the past two days, bringing the island's total to 383 — more than 90 percent traced to transmission in hospitals.

"The new wave has yet to peak," warned Lee Ming-liang, head of Taiwan's SARS Control Committee.

The little-known military biological lab is believed to be built into a mountainside in suburban Taipei. Full of advanced French-made equipment, it was reportedly set up years ago to create biological weapons in the event of germ warfare, but no one without high security clearance is allowed near it.

Defense Ministry spokesman Huang Shuey-sheng declined to elaborate. Officials say the lab is now only focused on studies to prevent damage inflicted by a germ warfare.

The Defense Ministry also said it is converting four military hospitals in central and southern Taiwan into SARS-only facilities that could handle up to 220 cases.

Seven military camps are also being used to quarantine homeless people and others who might have been exposed to the virus, the ministry said.

President Chen Shui-bian criticized China for scuttling Taiwan's latest bid to join the World Health Organization so the U.N. health agency could better help it battle SARS.

"Joining the international health system is Taiwan's right, but China is always interfering for political reasons," he said Tuesday.

Taiwan and China split in 1949 after a civil war. Chinese leaders fiercely oppose attempts by Taiwan to be recognized as an independent country.

WHO Director-General Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland appealed to governments worldwide to work closer together in the fight against SARS.

"We can no longer rely on national efforts alone to implement the scaled-up system of global alert and response that the world now needs," Brundtland told a WHO conference on Monday.

WHO says only 16 of the people infected worldwide with SARS got the disease while aboard an airplane and that all those cases came before airlines began screening passengers for symptoms.

While SARS infected people are known to have traveled on 35 flights, the infection was passed on only four — and in those cases, 14 of those infected were sitting within four seats of the person carrying the disease and two were flight attendants.

The results could be welcome news for the world's air carriers, which have suffered a deep slump in traffic, especially in Asia.

The International Air Transport Association says SARS has caused more damage to the global airline industry than the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the war in Iraq combined. The air industry expects a loss of $10 billion this year, it said.

In an effort to boost travel, China is reducing airport landing fees by 20 percent. Several other countries have already done the same.

China reported five new SARS deaths and 17 new cases of infection, including 12 in Beijing, the Health Ministry said. That raises the mainland's death toll to 294 and its infection toll to 5,248.

Beijing's public schools will reopen this week amid strict anti-SARS measures that include forcing some students to take medical exams. Beijing closed its public schools April 24, sending home 1.7 million students.

In Hong Kong, a 4-month-old girl is believed to have caught SARS from her grandfather, who earlier spread the disease to four other family members. She was in stable condition Tuesday.

Two more SARS deaths lifted Hong Kong's toll to 253, but the number of new cases stayed in the single digits at just four, health officials said Tuesday.

The SARS outbreak has dealt harsh blows to Hong Kong businesses, and the government said Tuesday that unemployment had shot up to 7.8 percent in the three months ending April 30, matching a record set last year.

Roughly 70 percent of Japanese companies doing business in Asia have been hurt by the SARS outbreak, according to a survey released Tuesday by a Japanese government-affiliated trade group.

Thailand decided to buy insurance so it can pay foreign tourists $100,000 apiece if they died from SARS contracted while visiting Thailand. Thailand has reported just two SARS deaths, both people who acquired the disease abroad.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 286 suspected and 67 probable SARS cases in the United States, with more in California (45 suspected, 24 probable) than any other of the 40 states reporting cases.