Asian Leaders Meet on SARS; Nine More Die in China

With SARS spreading back home, China's premier met Southeast Asian leaders at an emergency summit Tuesday to win back international trust after weeks of cover-up accusations and amid economic worries.

Premier Wen Jiabao cautioned the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (search) that SARS (search) is going to be a long-term problem for his country. The disease has sickened more than 5,300 people in 20 countries, mostly in Asia, and killed at least 354.

"There is a need for us to recognize the fact that the SARS epidemic is going to be a long-term, a complex and a relapsing epidemic," Wen said.

He added that China just needed time to control the illness and acknowledged that his government did not adequately address it initially.

"What we lacked was prevention and control experience. Our countermeasures were, by far, inadequate," Wen said. "We have already learned our lesson."

On Tuesday, China reported nine more deaths and 200 new infections, bringing its SARS death toll to 148. The World Health Organization (search) says SARS probably has peaked in many places, but it fears the situation is worsening in China.

At the end of the summit, Asian leaders announced wide-ranging steps to control the spread of SARS. A joint declaration by China, Hong Kong and 10 southeast Asian countries said they would take "rigorous measures" concerning immigration and customs controls, including pre-departure and arrival screening of travelers and better flight management.

The countries agreed to set up a regional information network to help stop the spread of SARS and said their countries would cooperate on researching the disease.

Separately, hard-hit China and Taiwan both established funds to combat the disease. Mongolia reported its first cases, and New Zealand and South Korea said for the first time they had probable SARS cases.

The health minister of Canada's Ontario province met with WHO leaders in Geneva on Tuesday and said he was hopeful that WHO will lift a warning against travel to Toronto, imposed because of fears about the spread of SARS.

Tony Clement described his delegation as "anticipating and hopeful" following his meeting with WHO chief Gro Harlem Brundtland. Toronto has seen the worst SARS outbreak outside Asia, with 21 deaths.

Canada has complained the WHO advisory -- which also included Hong Kong, Beijing and other regions of China -- is unwarranted and damaging to the economy.

WHO planned to hold an 11 a.m. EDT news conference.

Nearly 10,000 people who might have been exposed to the virus have been put under home quarantine in China -- including 7,600 in Beijing.

Millions of Chinese are avoiding shops and some are staying away from work, raising fears of massive economic consequences at home and abroad.

President Hu Jintao has ordered Communist Party officials to "move forward with economic work while going all out to combat the SARS epidemic," the official Xinhua news agency reported.

The strain of the disease is affecting the world's most populous nation in other ways as well.

Chinese police confirmed that villagers near Beijing ransacked a building after they heard rumors it was to be made into a SARS ward.

The violence erupted Sunday in Chagugang, about 60 miles southeast of Beijing.

Construction crews had installed metal partitions and beds in the vacant junior high school, said a construction worker reached there by telephone. He wouldn't give his name. An official of the Tianjin Public Health Bureau, which is responsible for the town, said it had no plans to put SARS patients in the school.

In other signs of tension, a newspaper reported that health workers in the capital were fatigued and demoralized and that some hospitals treating SARS patients were running low of drugs and even face masks.

The Japanese government advised its 3,000 students studying in Beijing to return home and extended its travel advisory to all of China instead of just the capital.

Wanting to rebuild its regional support, China has proposed setting up an Asian fund to study and devise preventive measures against SARS, and pledged initial seed money of $1.2 million.

Separately, rival Taiwan announced it would establish its own $1.4 billion emergency fund to tackle SARS and to help patients and industry there.

The money will be used to help SARS patients and those suspected of contracting the flu-like illness. It will also provide aid to Taiwan's tourism and manufacturing sectors, which have been hard hit by the disease, the Cabinet said in a statement.

The summit of Asian nations in Bangkok is the first high-level international meeting to discuss SARS, which cost the region's economy and tourism sectors dearly.

In New York, Asian-American businesses called for help to lure tourists back to the city's Chinatown, which has been in a slump since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks against the nearby World Trade Center and is suffering again because of SARS fears.