China said there were signs the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) crisis in Beijing could be easing yesterday but the World Health Organization (WHO) warned it was too early to tell if the disease was under control.
Beijing has been the worst affected city in China from the SARS outbreak, with 114 fatalities, 2,177 confirmed cases and more than 18,000 people quarantined.
Liang Wannian, an epidemiologist, told reporters yesterday that the SARS epidemic showed signs of declining in the Chinese capital.
The number of SARS patients admitted to the city's hospitals had fallen to between 30 and 40 a day over the past week from 70 to 80 between April 21 and May 2, he said.
"Overall, we can say that the upward tendency of SARS cases has been effectively checked in Beijing," said Liang, who is also vice-director of the Beijing Health Bureau.
His upbeat assessment appeared to be backed by just 48 new cases being reported in Beijing yesterday, the lowest daily figure since the government admitted covering up the extent of the crisis on April 20.
In the days preceding this more than 90 cases had been noted.
The WHO though warned it was premature to say the crisis had peaked in Beijing.
"Some of the figures recently have been encouraging, but until a proper epidemiological study can be done we can't conclude that it is really declining," WHO spokeswoman Mangai Balasegaram said.
"We are still not getting a lot of adequate new data from China but it is getting better," she said.
Just hours after the Beijing officials had expressed their optimism, Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing (李肇星) admitted that the SARS crisis nationwide remained "severe."
"Now the difficulties are numerous and the situation we are faced with remains very severe," Li told Dr. Jong-Wook Lee, WHO director general in waiting.
Meanwhile, WHO data showed that an ill-fated Air China flight from Hong Kong to Beijing was one of the main sources of SARS transmission in northern China, with 17 people confirmed to have been infected from one "superspreader."
A 72-year-old Beijing man is believed to be the "superspreader" on a March 15, CA 112 flight.
He infected nine Hong Kong tourists, three Taiwanese businessmen, a Singaporean woman, two Chinese government officials and two stewardesses, the data said.
The man then infected a group of Beijing medical workers as he was transferred to three different hospitals before he succumbed to the disease on March 20, according to the data compiled from SARS infection tracing by China's Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
The data show the elderly man was infected in early March by his niece who was at the Prince of Wales Hospital in Hong Kong.
He became SARS symptomatic prior to the March 15 flight and was hospitalized in Beijing on March 16, where he first infected a doctor and a nurse, before spreading the disease to other health workers in two more hospitals.