Taipei Subway Riders Must Wear Masks

The subway system in Taiwan's capital became a new front in the war against SARS on Sunday as a top Chinese Communist Party official called for "total victory" against the disease. Elsewhere, an AIDS researcher said the SARS virus seems to attack human cells in a manner akin to HIV, which may help in treating the newfound illness.

In a new restriction, all passengers on Taipei's subway system now must wear medical masks. When the measure came into force on Sunday, the usual din of conversation on trains was absent as masked people sat quietly. Many wore baseball hats, apparently hoping to get extra protection against the virus. At train depots, cleaners scrubbed hand rails of cars with bleach-dipped cloths.

The worldwide death toll from severe acute respiratory syndrome was at least 536 on Sunday with 11 new deaths — six in China, three in Hong Kong, and one each in Taiwan and Singapore. More than 7,300 people have been infected in over 25 countries.

Also, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder went ahead with a Southeast Asian tour while a top U.S. university slightly eased a ban on students from SARS-hit countries.

As Japan sent two infectious disease experts to China to help, optimistic Beijing officials maintained the capital's SARS outbreak is waning. However, the city's Communist Party secretary talked tough after the World Health Organization complained about holes in patient data.

"We can't allow the slightest relaxation in the fight against SARS in May," the party's People's Daily newspaper quoted Liu Qi as saying.

He ordered officials to "make utmost efforts to fight Beijing's May battle against SARS and obtain total victory in the work of SARS prevention."

China remains the hardest hit country with at least 240 SARS deaths. Another 69 cases on Sunday raised its infection tally to 4,948. Thousands more are being kept in quarantine amid fears that the disease is spreading from cities and into the impoverished countryside, where medical facilities would not be able to cope with a sweeping epidemic.

New infection rates have dropped dramatically in Beijing in recent days. Only 42 new cases were reported Sunday along with four deaths in the city.

But WHO says it is too early to declare that the capital's outbreak has peaked. It says Beijing health authorities can't explain how about half of its more than 2,200 SARS patients caught the virus — an omission in data that hinders attempts to fight its spread.

Taiwan announced the death of a hospital nurse that raised its toll to 19. It also reported 12 new cases on Sunday, and officials fear the illness is spreading from Taipei and through the south of the island.

In response, Taiwan is installing video cameras to keep watch over about 8,000 people quarantined in their homes in case they have contracted the illness.

Video surveillance was ordered after three-times-a-day phone call checks by health officials were being circumvented by people who broke the quarantine by leaving home and forwarding all calls to their mobile phones.

SARS has killed 18 people and infected 184 in Taiwan, where the transmission pattern is described as high by WHO's Web site.

In Hong Kong, 215 people have died and 1,678 infected. Only four new cases were reported Sunday confirming a falling infection rate that, along with warmer weather, has persuaded many people to stop wearing masks.

Business people and tourism officials, worried about Hong Kong's image, have welcomed their growing abandonment.

"You can't see our smile when we put the masks on," said James Lu, executive director of the Hong Kong Hotels Association.

Also in the territory, Dr. David Ho, a researcher who helped pioneer a drug cocktail treatment for AIDS patients, said there had been promising results from laboratory tests on the SARS virus using an anti-HIV treatment, synthetic peptides — amino acids that slow AIDS in an expensive drug called Fuzeon.

Tests using animals could take place soon. But it was too early to use such medications to treat human SARS patients.

"We're not saying this is the drug to treat (SARS) patients tomorrow or next month," said Ho, who is scientific director of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center in New York.

Hong Kong health officials have taken samples from a public housing complex where five cases had been found, Director of Health Margaret Chan said. A local newspaper said some residents of the building had fled fearing they would be subjected to strict quarantine.

Meanwhile, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder Sunday arrived in Malaysia, which has reported two SARS deaths. His five-day tour also takes him to Singapore, where SARS has claimed 27 lives, Indonesia and Vietnam, which appears to have beaten an outbreak that killed five.

Schroeder had planned originally to take a delegation of 120. However, this was cut to 30 because of the SARS threat.

In Geneva, the international basketball federation, FIBA, said it might move the July 10-20 junior men's World Championships from Malaysia to the Greek capital, Athens, because of SARS.

In the United States, the University of California at Berkeley eased a ban on students from SARS-affected areas of Asia who have enrolled in summer school, saying it will welcome about 80 students from Taiwan, China and Hong Kong who have enrolled in core academic classes.

But it will maintain a ban on nearly 600 English language students. About US$1 million in fees will be refunded.

A civil rights group, Chinese for Affirmative Action, says the ban is discriminatory and too broad.