Sun, May 11, 2003 - Page 3 News List

SARS task force upbeat over progress so far

GETTING A GRIPHeaded by Academia Sinica President Lee Yuan-tseh, the team said that the virus was not as bad as some sections of society have feared

By Melody Chen  /  STAFF REPORTER

Premier Yu Shyi-kun, center, convened a meeting to discuss SARS prevention in Taipei and Taoyuan yesterday afternoon. Commenting on the decision by the World Health Organization to list Taiwan as an area with ``high'' local transmission, he said Taiwan should be allowed into the global health body as soon as possible to share and also contribute to world health resources.

PHOTO: CHIANG YING-YING, TAIPEI TIMES

Although the World Health Organ-ization (WHO) raised Taipei's SARS status to an area with "high" local transmission, scientists launching a SARS-research task force expressed optimism on containing the epidemic yesterday.

Academia Sinica President Lee Yuan-tseh (李遠哲) heads the task force, with Michael Lai (賴明詔), the world's first scientist to discover coronavirus' mutation-prone nature, and Chen Ding-shinn (陳定信), dean of National Taiwan University's College of Medicine, co-chairing the team.

David Ho (何大一), a leading scientist in AIDS research, is also a member of the SARS research team, which consists of another seven scientists.

Ho arrived in Taiwan yesterday to join a discussion with members of the SARS-research team from Academia Sinica and returned to Hong Kong last night. He was scheduled to visit Beijing today.

In a press conference held at the Academia Sinica, Ho said the public has overreacted to the disease, which has caused "very great distress to the country."

Ho said as the coronavirus and the HIV virus both belong to the group of RNA (Ribose Nuclei Acid) viruses, they change and mutate a great deal.

"But we have to bear in mind that a lot of the viruses [coronaviruses] have been sequenced, including some of the oldest samples from Hong Kong," he said.

According to Ho, although there were differences, many of the viruses -- more than 99 percent of them -- remained the same.

"Coronavirus has the ability to change, but it does not have the duration to mutate on and on. It's not like HIV virus, which mutates every day for 10 years. So we have to put it [the coronavirus] in context," Ho said.

Lee quoted Ho as saying that compared with the HIV virus, the complexity of the coronavirus was "a small case."

Meanwhile, Lai predicted it would take at least four to five years before SARS vaccines become available.

"Developing coronavirus vaccines are not too difficult a matter. At present, we already have coronavirus vaccines for animals like chickens, cows and pigs," Lai said.

Nevertheless, even developing vaccines against a virus without much complexity would usually take seven to 10 years, Lai said.

As vaccines are urgently needed to contain SARS, Lai said scientists would accelerate the speed to produce SARS vaccines.

He also said during their mutation, coronaviruses would become more or less toxic. "However, it is the law of nature: when an organism mutates too frequently, it will eventually fail to survive." Lai said.

Lai said as no drug and vaccines are available for SARS, the best way to contain the disease is to isolate possible cases.

Chen Chien-jen (陳建仁), an epidemiologist and member of the task force, said the recent sudden rise in SARS cases did not indicate a worsening in the development of the disease.

The sudden rise resulted from the Department of Health's speeding up verification of reported SARS cases, according to Chen.

"Actually, the onset rate of SARS has been conspicuously dropping since May 1. Active cases have been reducing, too. Many of the probable cases the DOH reported these days had their onset dates as early as 10 days ago," Chen said.

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