China Power | Society | East Asia

As China Investigates Mysterious Illness, Hong Kong Steps up Response

Though SARS has been ruled out, the scars of the 2002-2003 epidemic continue to linger in Hong Kong.

By Yanan Wang and Alice Fung for
As China Investigates Mysterious Illness, Hong Kong Steps up Response

Commuters wear protection masks inside a subway train in Hong Kong, Jan. 7, 2020.

Credit: AP Photo/Andy Wong

The 2002-2003 SARS epidemic started in southern China and killed more than 700 people in mainland China, Hong Kong, and elsewhere. Fears of a SARS recurrence arose this month after a slate of patients were hospitalized with an unexplained viral pneumonia in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province.

But the mysterious respiratory illness that has infected dozens of people is not SARS, local authorities said Sunday.

As of Sunday, 59 people were diagnosed with the condition and have been isolated while they receive treatment, according to the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission. Seven were in critical condition, while the rest were stable.

The commission said in a statement that initial investigations have ruled out SARS — severe acute respiratory syndrome — as well as Middle East respiratory syndrome, influenza, bird flu, and adenovirus.

The commission previously said the condition’s most common symptom was fever, with shortness of breath and lung infections appearing in a “small number” of cases. There were no clear indications of human-to-human transmission.

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Several patients were working at the South China Seafood City food market in sprawling Wuhan’s suburbs. The commission said the market would be suspended and investigated.

Hong Kong’s Hospital Authority said Sunday that a total of 15 patients in Hong Kong were being treated for symptoms including fever and respiratory infection after recent visits to Wuhan. It is not clear whether they have the same illness as the Wuhan patients.

Speaking at a news conference on Tuesday, Hong Kong’s health chief, Sophia Chan, said the “severe respiratory disease associated with a novel infectious agent” will be added to a list of reportable infectious diseases in Hong Kong’s Prevention and Control of Disease Ordinance.

The regulation enables the government to take stronger measures against the spread of certain diseases, such as tuberculosis and chicken pox. Actions under the ordinance could include enforcing quarantines or limiting the movement of people who are suspected to have infections.

“Under the amendment, medical practitioners will have to report suspected cases as well as carry out appropriate investigations and follow-ups to the Center for Health Protection under the Department of Health,” Chan said.

Although SARS has been ruled out as the cause of the recent outbreak, the experience of that deadly epidemic will shape Hong Kong’s response. SARS spread from mainland China, where the first case was reported in November 2002, to Hong Kong in early 2003. Hong Kong was slow to react at first, in part because authorities on mainland China chose to conceal the severity of the outbreak until it was too late. Authorities in Guangdong province knew of the outbreak by January 2003 but delayed notifying the World Health Organization (WHO). The first case in Hong Kong occurred in late February 2003; the outbreak eventually infected over 1,700 people and killed 299 in the city. The experience prompted a major overhaul in Hong Kong’s sanitation procedures and public health measures.

The WHO said it was closely monitoring the current situation and maintaining contact with Chinese authorities. No travel or trade restrictions are necessary at this time, the WHO said.

By Yanan Wang and Alice Fung for The Associated Press with additional reporting by The Diplomat.