China Finally Admits Seriousness of Virus Outbreak

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:13 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - China's top leaders have broken their silence about the deadly super-pneumonia outbreak, for the first time expressing public concern about the virus that has killed scores of people in mainland China and Hong Kong.

The apparent change comes after several weeks of criticism - including a scolding from the World Health Organization (WHO) - about Beijing's secretive handling of "severe acute respiratory syndrome," known as SARS.

The virus first emerged in southern China's Guangdong province late last year, before being spread, mainly through air travel, to Hong Kong, Southeast Asia and the West.

State television has shown President Hu Jintao visiting Guangdong hospitals, while Prime Minister Wen Jiabao said the situation remained grave, and identified fighting the spread of SARS as China's most urgent health priority.

Wen was quoted by the Xinhua news agency as telling a national conference on SARS that new cases had to be speedily detected and treated, that patients should be quarantined early, and that authorities must "give out speedy reports."

As of Monday, the WHO reported 64 deaths in China and 47 in Hong Kong, the two areas worst hit by the outbreak, which has infected almost 3,200 people worldwide and taken a total of at least 144 lives. There have been 174 suspected cases in the United States, but no deaths.

Until recently, China withheld information on the extent of the problem there. And even once it had begun to provide regular updates on new infections and deaths, authorities last week continued to insist that the situation was under control.

Despite the apparent change of approach, the WHO said in a statement the Chinese authorities were still preventing visiting WHO experts from entering military hospitals in Beijing, "which have been the focus of numerous rumors."

The Geneva-based agency expressed concern about the way the Chinese government was responding to those rumors.

An editorial Tuesday in a Taiwanese newspaper, Taiwan News , slammed what it called "an authoritarian regime that places a higher value on information control and international image than human welfare."

"As so sadly demonstrated by the SARS catastrophe, despotism in [China] is as vicious as ever, threatening the well-being not only of the Chinese people but of all humanity."

The paper said Beijing's new leadership faced the challenges both of managing the crisis, and of setting aside the obsession with holding onto power.

See Earlier Story:
Rare Chinese Apology Over SARS Secrecy (April 8, 2003)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow