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UN Sends Experts to China to Study Origins of SARS Virus - 2003-07-11

A panel of international experts say Hong Kong's response to the SARS outbreak this year was good, but there is always room for improvement. The United Nations has sent an expert to mainland China to study the origins of the virus.

Experts say Hong Kong's medical authorities win high marks for the quality of the data they collected about Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS.

On Friday, an international panel of experts investigating the city's handling of the outbreak released its first findings after a five-day visit to the territory.

Professor Sian Griffiths of Oxford University heads the committee. She says sharing information is crucial to fighting disease outbreaks.

"I've raised the issue of communication, communication with mainland China, communication among the different parts of the health service and health sector - those are issues we'll be coming back to," she said.

Mainland China and Hong Kong accounted for more than 80 percent of the world's 8,400 cases. Globally, SARS killed about 800 people.

The head of the World Health Organization, Gro Harlem Brundtland, on Friday stressed that transparency in reporting disease outbreaks is key to controlling future epidemics.

The new disease first emerged in southern China in November and later spread to Hong Kong before traveling to more than 20 countries in four months. Accurate data on China's outbreak was not available for months after the first cases appeared, and the information came only after the international community demanded it.

Dr. Meirion Evans, an epidemiologist on the committee of experts, says there were great differences between Hong Kong and Guangdong's response to SARS.

"In terms of differences between Hong Kong and Guangdong, one of the things that impresses us about Hong Kong is the quality of the information, of the data, on cases of the disease and contacts," said Dr. Evans.

Scientists say SARS may have come from an animal. On Friday the United Nations sent animal science expert Laurie Gleeson to China to trace the virus's origin.

He says scientists need to know more about the host of the virus and find out if many animal species can transmit SARS to humans. Information about a possible animal host could be critical to preventing future outbreaks.

On Thursday the U.S. Centers for Disease Control lifted a SARS-related travel alert on Hong Kong, because the city has been free of the disease for more than 30 days. Beijing and Taiwan are the only areas left with CDC travel alerts.