A foreign laboratory will help China determine whether it faces a new SARS (search) threat after repeated Chinese tests couldn't confirm whether a suspected patient had the disease, the World Health Organization said.

"The suspected SARS case in southern China remains a suspected case," WHO (search) said on its Web site, adding that China has agreed to send samples from the suspected patient to a laboratory abroad.

Chinese and WHO officials were discussing where the samples would be tested and when, a spokesman for the agency, Roy Wadia, said Wednesday in Beijing (search).

Beijing's cooperation with the international health agency was a marked departure from the way it reacted when SARS first surfaced in late 2002 and early 2003. The government's reluctance to immediately share information with international bodies, including WHO, was widely blamed for exacerbating the disease's initial spread.

The latest suspected patient, a 32-year-old television producer, has been hospitalized since Dec. 20 in Guangdong province, where the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome began. Authorities say he is in stable condition.

Chinese officials "decided that samples will be sent to a laboratory that is part of the WHO international reference network," said the WHO statement issued late Tuesday. "WHO believes that carrying out tests at multiple laboratories enhances the testing process."

The Chinese government's official Xinhua News Agency quoted the WHO statement but didn't give any additional details from Chinese officials.

A four-member WHO team has gone to Guangdong to help Chinese experts conduct tests, track down people who had contact with the man and figure out how he might have been exposed.

A final answer could take a "few days," team member Dr. Augusto Pinto said Tuesday. "Be patient," Pinto told Chinese state television.

More than 80 people who had contact with the man have been quarantined but none have shown symptoms and authorities are starting to release them, the Chinese government says.

SARS killed 349 people on China's mainland, where more than 5,000 were sickened. Beijing declared the mainland's last 12 patients free of the disease in July.

The flu-like illness claimed 774 lives worldwide and sickened nearly 8,100 before subsiding in June.

China's Health Ministry said Tuesday it would issue tighter safety rules for laboratories studying SARS after researchers in Taiwan and Singapore who handled the virus fell ill.

The ministry said it will inspect laboratories to make sure only those with the highest safeguards handle the virus. China already has ordered researchers to hand over virus samples for storage.

China's top SARS researcher appealed to scientists to do their utmost to prevent contamination.

"Safety in labs with high biological risks should be the top priority," Li Xueyong, who is also vice-minister of science and technology, was quoted as saying by Xinhua.