Singapore's hopes of being taken off a list of SARS-affected countries were rekindled yesterday after initial tests on a new cluster of potential infections at a mental institute proved negative.
Singapore is hoping to be given a clean bill of health by the World Health Organization (WHO) if there are no new infections by tomorrow -- 20 days after the last local transmission, or twice the estimated incubation period of the SARS virus.
Minister of State for Health Balaji Sadasivan said doctors had told him they needed at least 48 hours to get all the results of the tests in, but the first results showed no signs of the dreaded SARS virus.
"So far, none of the tests that have come in have shown SARS, but we need to wait until all the testing is done," he said in an interview with broadcaster Channel NewsAsia.
"I'm told our doctors need another 48 to 72 hours before they have all the tests in, then you can conclude that each one of your fever patients is not SARS and that therefore there is no outbreak.
"It could be flu, it could be something else," he said.
In a statement late Tuesday, the ministry of health said tests carried out on 15 patients and staff of the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) proved negative for coronavirus, which scientists said is the "causative agent" for SARS.
Five IMH staff were discharged after they had no fever, a SARS symptom, for 48 hours. Three patients were found positive for influenza B virus.
But 30 patients and 13 staff from the mental facility remained under observation at the Tan Tock Seng Hospital, the designated SARS treatment center. They had come down with fever earlier this week.
Authorities remained cautious, saying they were still treating the fever outbreak among a large cluster of patients and staff as potential SARS cases until proven otherwise, but the findings raised hopes.
"Hopefully, IMH is a false alarm," said Khaw Boon Wan, head of Singapore's SARS combat team.
"If it turns out to be influenza, then we have a lucky break here, but that doesn't mean the end of the battle. We must maintain vigilance," he was quoted as saying in the Straits Times.
But he said that "so long as there's one which is SARS, then to me, it's a SARS cluster."
The worldwide death toll from the disease is more than 600 with more than 7,600 cases.
Canada, which recorded 24 deaths out of 143 cases, became the latest country declared by the WHO as having contained SARS after 20 days of no new reported infections. Vietnam conquered the outbreak last month.
There were no new cases in Singapore as of late Thursday and the death toll stood at 28 out of 205 infections.
The number of patients who have recovered remained at 157, while 19 are still in hospital, seven of them in intensive care.