The World Health Organization (WHO) said China, epicenter of a flu-like virus that has killed about 160 people worldwide, had failed to report all its cases and the capital, Beijing, could have five times the official number.
The virus, which is new to science and has no known cure, has been carried by air travellers to around 22 countries in the past six weeks, infecting over 3,400 people.
Hong Kong, the second most affected area after China, reported five more deaths from the virus yesterday.
"Indeed there have been cases of SARS [severe acute respiratory syndrome] -- there is no question about that -- that have also not been reported officially," German WHO virologist Wolfgang Preiser said after a visit to a military hospital in Beijing.
"The military seems to have its own reporting system which does not link in presently with the municipal one," he told a news conference yesterday.
WHO officials called for full disclosure from the country where SARS first appeared in November and which has been criticized widely for not sharing information with the rest of the world soon enough.
Officials were asked how many cases Beijing really had. "I would guess the range would be between 100 and 200," WHO official Alan Schnur replied. Only 37 cases have been officially reported in Beijing.
A team of WHO virologists and epidemiologists were allowed to visit two military hospitals in Beijing -- days after asking for permission -- as the government responded to pressure.
SARS has killed at least 65 people and infected 1,445 in mainland China -- nearly half of the world's cases -- since it first surfaced in the southern province of Guangdong.
In a sign some progress was being made in the fight against the illness, Singapore said it hopes to have a diagnostic test ready in a week following 12 deaths from SARS in the tiny island nation in less than a month.
But scientists in Hong Kong said they may have detected a more virulent form of the virus in the city where the disease has killed 61 people and infected 1,268.
Key data to help explain SARS may emerge from China in three to four weeks, due to the new openness of officials, said Dr David Heymann, head of the WHO's contagious diseases unit.
"What's the future of this disease?" he said in New York. "We won't know until we see what's going on in China."
Scientists have been working feverishly on diagnostic tests for SARS, after mapping the genetic sequence of the virus.
The state-run Genome Institute of Singapore said its new test would take three hours and may be sensitive enough to detect the virus in its early stages.
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