Asia reported eight deaths from Sars today as scientists in Europe confirmed the identity of the virus that causes the deadly disease and more questions were raised about its spread in China where it started.
World Health Organisation investigators estimated Beijing may have five times more cases than previously acknowledged by China.
The Who team stopped short of backing cover-up allegations made by others, but said the Chinese capital could have as many as 200 “probable cases” of severe acute respiratory syndrome – far more than the 37, including four deaths, that had been revealed publicly.
They said the Chinese military had failed to report Sars cases in its hospitals.
At the United Nations, a senior Who official said Sars could be a disease that is here to stay, like tuberculosis or malaria. But doctors won’t know for sure until they fully understand what’s going on in China – which has been accused of hiding the extent of the problem within its borders.
“What’s dangerous about this is we don’t know its potential,” said Dr. David Heymann, head of Who’s Communicable Diseases Cluster.
“For the present, everything hinges on what we find out in China, as far as our projections.”
The global death count rose to at least 162 today with five new fatalities in Hong Kong, two in Singapore, and one in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, the likely birthplace of Sars.
More than 3,000 people have been sickened in 22 countries.
Who said that in experiments conducted at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, scientists infected monkeys with the coronavirus suspected of causing of Sars and found that the animals developed the same symptoms of the disease that humans do.
Families have been hard hit as the death count mounts.
In Hong Kong, three babies have been delivered by Caesarean section after their mothers were badly infected.
Today the infants had breathing problems and two had fevers – symptoms that point to Sars, although they have tested negative for the virus.
Doctors said their premature births may be complicating their conditions. One of the mothers died from Sars about two weeks after surgery. The two other women remain in hospital.
More evidence of the vulnerability of families to Sars came to light when Singapore said its two latest fatalities had been the mothers of Sars patients who had died earlier.
One of those was a doctor whose cardiologist son had died of the illness last week after being infected by Sars patients.
Although experts still know little about the illness, authorities believe it can be passed on by intimate contact. Hundreds of relatives of Sars victims have gone into quarantine in several countries.
Meanwhile, scientific detective work continues.
Researchers at the University of Hong Kong said a new genetic sequencing of the Sars virus proves conclusively that it came from animals – answering a question that had been left hanging following earlier such tests in North America.
But, the virus is nonetheless “something that is new to science,” said Malik Peiris, a microbiologist at the university. Asked about the possibility that the virus was man-made, Peiris said there was no chance of that.
“That whole genome is essentially new,” he said. ”Nature has been the terrorist throwing up this virus.”