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Beijing quarantines 4,000 over SARS

Canadian Parliament to meet in Toronto amid travel advisory

Wary Chinese wait for a train in Beijing. Thousands have fled the city in recent days.
Wary Chinese wait for a train in Beijing. Thousands have fled the city in recent days.

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BEIJING, China (CNN) -- Struggling to contain the rapid spread of SARS, Chinese officials ordered 4,000 Beijing residents -- anyone who might have had "intimate contact" with someone suspected of infection -- to stay at home under quarantine Friday.

Beijing, with 12 million residents, is home to more than half of the reported new SARS cases and deaths in mainland China. Since the epidemic began, at least 42 Beijing residents have died of SARS and 877 have come down with it.

The World Health Organization had reported 2,422 cases of severe acute respiratory syndrome in all of China, including Hong Kong, as of Thursday.

Earlier this week, Beijing invoked emergency powers, decreeing it would quarantine people or public places suspected of SARS infection. "We will absolutely not let a single SARS case slip by," Beijing spokesman Cai Fuchao declared.

The measures have prompted panic buying and hoarding in some areas among people who fear food shortages or forced quarantines. City officials said they expect the behavior to subside because there is enough food and goods to meet the public's needs.

Rumors that authorities are planning to declare martial law in Beijing or close the city's airports and highways have circulated on the Internet and over mobile phones. A city government spokesman dismissed them as "rumors spread by people with ulterior motives."

Meanwhile, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien took steps Friday to demonstrate that his government has the SARS outbreak under control even as health officials announced two more deaths in the Toronto, Ontario, area from the illness.

Chretien said his Cabinet will meet Tuesday in Toronto instead of Ottawa and that he will spend the day and night in the city, "and I'll sleep very, very, very well," he said. He also announced that the Canadian government will contribute $10 million toward a marketing campaign to boost the image of Toronto, where tourism has been crippled by SARS fears.

The World Health Organization issued an advisory Wednesday urging that all but essential travel to Toronto be deferred until the crisis has abated.

Canadian health officials said Friday that the WHO has agreed to review its advisory. The agency had said that it would lower the alert only when no new cases occur in a three-week period.

Canadian politicians, health officials and the public have derided the warning as ridiculous and have called for the advisory to be lifted. (Full story)

Although Toronto has far fewer cases than China and only 18 deaths, Canada has reported more SARS cases than any country outside Asia.

The WHO also said Canada had exported SARS to other countries, including the United States, Australia and the Philippines.

Meanwhile, the National Institutes of Health signed a contract amendment with the pharmaceutical company GenVec to allow it to begin using GenVec's adenovector technology to develop a vaccine against SARS.

The adenovector technology calls for removing disease DNA from an adenovirus -- a virus that causes respiratory disease, including one form of the common cold -- and adding a therapeutic gene to the virus, described by GenVec as "nature's highly efficient delivery vehicle."

Scientists have linked SARS to the coronavirus, also a cause of the common cold.

India pilots walk; 2 die in Philippines

In India, 200 unionized Air India pilots walked off the job Friday to protest what they called the management's "apathy" in screening passengers for the virus.

The state-owned carrier, which screens passengers deplaning in India but not as they board in east and southeast Asian countries where the disease is prominent, canceled five flights Friday. One SARS case has been reported in India.

Also Friday, health officials in the Philippines say the country has had its first two deaths from SARS, and another two people are infected.

Worldwide, the World Health Organization reported, 4,439 cases with 263 deaths have occurred from the respiratory infection. The United States has 39 probable cases of the disease, with no reported deaths, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Hong Kong cases inch up

The increasingly urgent steps in China come as the mortality rate creeps up in Hong Kong.

Officials in the former British colony -- the hardest-hit area of China -- raised the death rate from SARS on Thursday to 7.2 percent from 5 percent.

Some experts say it could rise higher because the rate is calculated by including those patients still being treated in hospital.

Although 614 people out of 1,510 infected in the territory of 6.7 million people have recovered, 105 are still in intensive care. Hong Kong reported six more deaths Friday, bringing its toll to 115.

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