China said yesterday the number of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) cases in Beijing may soon begin falling but that the virus could wreak havoc in the vast hinterlands.
Latest figures showed the virus had killed at least 16 more people and infected another 168 in China and Hong Kong.
The worldwide death toll neared 500 with more than 7,300 cumulative infections.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said China was the key to containing global outbreaks of the flu-like virus.
A team of four WHO experts were to visit Hebei Province, which surrounds Beijing and is home to some of the capital's "floating population" of migrant workers, today to assess the ability of healthcare systems to cope with an outbreak.
The number of probable SARS cases in Hebei has risen sharply in the last few days, WHO said on its Web site (www.who.int).
China's Health Ministry said yesterday that five more people had died of SARS and another 159 were infected, taking the national death toll to 219, and the number of cases to 4,560. Three of the deaths were in Beijing along with 97 of the latest infections.
Hong Kong said the virus had killed 11 more people in the territory and infected another eight.
Singapore said it could declare the epidemic under control if it goes 10 more days without a new case.
Twenty-seven people have died from SARS in Singapore out of 204 reported cases.
But the number of people in hospital is at a five-week low and only four new cases emerged last week -- the lowest since the epidemic began in March.
Canada, where 23 people have died of SARS since mid-March, said Tuesday it has 146 probable SARS cases, two less than on Monday.
Roche Holding AG announced yesterday that it was on track to have a SARS diagnostic test ready next month but that it might take at least 18 months for it to be ready for distribution beyond the research community.