BEIJING – A top Chinese health official denied claims that Beijing tried to hide the seriousness of the SARS virus, saying Friday that the government warned about SARS (search) as early as February and early efforts to fight it were slowed by poor information.
In an encouraging sign, meanwhile, the World Health Organization (search) said Friday it will remove Singapore from the list of countries affected by the SARS virus because the city-state had not reported a new case of SARS in 20 days.
Defending China's reporting of the illness, Gao Qiang, the country's executive deputy health minister, waved a copy of the Communist Party newspaper People's Daily (search), which told about an atypical pneumonia Feb. 12 that had killed five people in Guangdong province and infected 305.
The symptoms were similar to what now is known as severe acute respiratory syndrome, including fever, dry cough and chills, Gao said. The World Health Organization believes that SARS originated in Guangdong.
"Infectious diseases are impossible to cover up," Gao said. "You may be able to cover up figures, but you can never cover up viruses."
Gao's comments were the highest-level response yet to accusations that communist officials tried to cover up the extent of the illness. Critics have complained that China's early reluctance to release information might have worsened the impact of the disease.
Gao repeated official explanations that an inadequate Chinese public health network was to blame for earlier underreporting of the true scale of China's outbreak. "The Chinese government did not conceal the truth," Gao said.
The SARS virus has killed at least 755 people worldwide out of more than 8,300 people infected, the vast majority of them in Asia. China has been the hardest hit, with 328 deaths. WHO said in mid-March that it was a global health threat.
But in Canada's largest city, Toronto, health authorities reported another SARS death and 10 more cases Friday, bringing the city's death toll from the virus to 30.
Toronto's cluster of new cases emerged last week in a harsh blow to a health are system that appeared to have brought an initial SARS outbreak in March and April under control. Health officials have told more than 7,800 people to quarantine themselves because of possible exposure.
In Hong Kong, officials said Friday they may offer cash rewards to people who turn in neighbors who spit or litter in an effort to improve hygiene, after government economists predicted the SARS outbreak would cut the territory's economic growth in half.
Gao refused to comment on the government's decision April 20 to fire Health Minister Zhang Wenkang and the mayor of Beijing for what state media said was their inadequate response to the outbreak. The same day, the government announced sharply higher numbers of SARS cases and promised to be more forthcoming with information.
"The first time China publicized information about this, the SARS problem had not come to any other country," Gao said, referring to the People's Daily report. "Such publicity was first a warning for China itself and also a warning for the rest of the world."
The short report, on the newspaper's second page, assured readers that "people should not panic" if good prevention measures are taken, including frequent disinfection, good ventilation and avoiding crowded public places.
"It is just that because of a lack of an effective information collection system, it was difficult for us to lay our hands on the exact figures," Gao said.
Also Friday, China reported one new SARS fatality and seven new cases. The Shanghai city government announced it would no longer require people returning from trips to SARS-affected areas to quarantine themselves at home.
Gao said there were more accurate ways of telling whether SARS is coming under control. They include fewer people in hospitals and the general mood of Beijing, where fewer people are now wearing masks, he said.
The China National Tourism Administration said Friday that travel agencies will be allowed to resume group tours from Guangdong to the neighboring cities of Hong Kong and Macau in June.
Group tours from overseas will be welcomed in China beginning in July, although areas affected by SARS will remain off-limits, and tours between provinces and to overseas destinations are still banned, said the announcement posted on the administration's Web site.
Encouraging news also came from Singapore. The World Health Organization said Friday Singapore would be removed from its list of SARS-affected countries because it was 20 days after the last locally acquired case was placed in isolation.
The 20-day period represents twice the maximum incubation period. The illness has killed 31 people in Singapore since March and sickened 206. About 290 people are currently under home quarantine.
Singapore promised it would remain vigilant. "So long as there are SARS-affected areas in the region and the world, we cannot afford to let our guard down," the government said in a statement Friday.
Taiwan reported its lowest daily number of new SARS cases in three weeks Friday, and officials said that supported their view that the illness was fading on the island, ranked No. 3 in the world in deaths and infections.
Health chief Chen Chien-jen reported seven new cases of SARS and said no medical workers have caught the virus in the past 10 days in hospitals -- the primary source of past infections.
"It's very obvious that our new cases have been gradually dwindling since May 13. Everyone is working hard," he said.
But Friday's low number came just a day after Taiwan reported 50 new infections, the biggest increase in nearly a week. Officials said the spike was not caused by a new outbreak because 40 of the cases were patients who had reported SARS symptoms over the past two weeks and had their cases upgraded.