Hong Kong, which has just begun to recover from the devastating SARS epidemic, waited nervously yesterday for the results of comprehensive tests into 18 possible new cases of the deadly respiratory disease.
Preliminary tests have shown positive for influenza and no signs of SARS, but medical experts said extensive studies are needed for accurate diagnoses.
"It will take another two to three days at least for the results of comprehensive tests to be out," a health department spokeswoman said. "Influenza peaks in July and August here. These cases could be influenza."
Hong Kong microbiologists say quick tests for SARS are not entirely reliable.
Word of the possible cases, mostly patients at a mental institution, came a month after the World Health Organization declared Hong Kong SARS-free and raised fears of a resurgence of the pneumonia-like illness that killed about 800 people around the globe.
If the tests were to prove positive, it would be a major blow to Hong Kong and its government, which has faced huge protests over its handling of the earlier SARS outbreak and a deeply unpopular security bill.
Even a negative result might fail to calm jangled nerves in the territory, which came close to mass panic during the height of the epidemic in late March.
Some medical experts say the disease may only be dormant and would return in the winter. Others said it was possible there were milder, mutated versions that were virtually impossible to detect and could be circulating among the wider population.
Sixteen are patients in a mental institution, one is a staff member and another a relative. Hospital officials said all had respiratory problems, fever and coughs but they were in a stable condition.
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