China Admits SARS Outbreak Far Worse, Fires 2 Key Officials

Special to The Times

Stung by allegations of a state-sanctioned coverup, China fired its top public health official and the mayor of Beijing on Sunday, as the Health Ministry admitted that it had underreported statistics on victims of the SARS virus and that the capital has nine times the number of cases previously reported.

The government also announced that it was curtailing the country’s recently lengthened May 1 holiday week to keep travelers from spreading severe acute respiratory syndrome, which scientists believe originated in the southern province of Guangdong.

Sunday’s decisions followed a meeting Thursday of the Chinese leadership, which promised punishment for officials who falsified or delayed reporting of SARS statistics.

The firings appeared to be the strongest move to date in the first domestic crisis to confront President Hu Jintao since he assumed office last month.

“In responding to this public health incident,” Vice Minister of Health Gao Qiang told a news briefing Sunday, “the Health Ministry’s preparation was inadequate. Its disease prevention system was relatively weak.”


To China’s public health system, he added, “our requirements were unclear and our guidance was ineffective.”

Gao put the total number of SARS patients in Beijing as of Friday at 339, with 18 deaths and an additional 402 suspected cases, up from 37 cases and four fatalities reported earlier in the week. That gives the city the largest number of patients after Hong Kong and neighboring Guangdong.

The SARS epidemic has killed more than 200 people and infected about 3,800 worldwide, with about half the cases in China. The World Health Organization has disputed previous assertions by Beijing that the country is safe for work and travel, and domestic and foreign media have lambasted the government’s secretive handling of the outbreak.

As cases of SARS have spread, indifference has given way to fear and caution in the Chinese capital. Several schools where students have become infected have suspended classes, and pupils have been ordered to don face masks and take herbal medicines.

The health minister and mayor were scheduled to address Sunday’s news briefing, but neither showed up. When questioned, Gao denied knowledge of any firings. But less than an hour later, the official New China News Agency issued three one-line reports announcing that the Communist Party’s Central Committee had recently relieved Zhang Wenkang and Meng Xuenong of their posts as party secretary of the Ministry of Health and deputy party secretary of Beijing, respectively

Gao took over Zhang’s post, the agency reported. It offered no explanation for the firings.

In China’s political system, one Beijing-based scholar said, dismissing officials from party posts “is an unmistakable signal that their government careers are finished.”

“The leadership had to make a statement on this crisis, and these actions are akin to honoring a commitment,” the scholar said. He also expressed hope that Hu’s handling of the crisis “could be a turning point in the transition to a more accountable and transparent government.”

Both fired officials are believed to have ties to senior leaders. Zhang Wenkang is a former doctor at military hospitals that treat China’s party elders. Meng Xuenong held an important post in the Communist Youth League, formerly headed by Hu Jintao.

In accounting for the “relatively large omissions in the epidemic statistics,” Gao denied any coverup. Instead, he said that many suspected cases had been only recently confirmed and that there had been no sharing of statistics by Beijing’s hundreds of hospitals under assorted government jurisdictions. The hospitals’ reporting would in the future be unified under the Beijing government, he promised.

Gao said his statistics were produced by an inspection team of hundreds of people, organized by the state council and headed by Gao, which had visited hospitals and registered SARS patients since Tuesday.

The Health Ministry had previously insisted its figures included statistics from the capital’s 16 military hospitals and were complete. World Health Organization experts who investigated Beijing took issue with those claims.

The experts followed up allegations by a senior military physician that the Health Ministry had ordered a coverup of several SARS fatalities at a military hospital last month. Chinese doctors say the falsifying of hospital statistics is a persistent problem, as hospital funding is often tied to performance indicators, including mortality rates.

Gao’s announcement that authorities had decided to discourage travel during the upcoming May 1 holiday week was a vivid indication of the official concern about SARS. In recent years, Beijing has lengthened major holidays in hopes that increased consumer spending would boost the economy.

“I think this measure will cause great losses in China’s tourism revenues,” Gao said. “But the Chinese government wants to make people’s lives and health the first priority.”

Meanwhile Sunday, governments around Asia struggled to restore public confidence and shore up crumbling travel and tourism industries hit by the SARS outbreak.

Hong Kong saw 19 more deaths over the weekend; it leads the world in SARS fatalities with 88.

The deaths prompted Hong Kong doctors to reexamine the mortality rate for the disease, which had previously been estimated at 5% of patients. Some now say the rate should be higher. But the Hong Kong government downplayed the mortality issue and defended its treatment of SARS patients.

“We still have the best treatment anywhere on Earth,” Ko Wing-man, acting chief executive of the Hospital Authority, said at a news briefing.

In Singapore, Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong warned that SARS could become the greatest crisis the city-state has faced unless it is brought under control. SARS has claimed 16 lives in Singapore and infected an additional 178 people.

Most of the patients in Singapore have been among patients and staff at hospitals. But authorities are preparing to quarantine up to 2,400 workers at the huge Pasir Panjar wholesale vegetable market after a merchant there died.

On Thursday, Singapore revised its economic growth forecast for this year to between 0.5% and 2.5%, down from earlier projections of 2% to 5%.

There is no known cure for SARS, which is transmitted through droplets sprayed by coughing, sneezing or spitting. However, the World Health Organization has not excluded the possibility that the disease can be passed through inadvertent exposure to human waste or to objects handled by infected people.

Since first appearing in China in November, the disease has spread to more than 20 countries on five continents. About 220 cases have been identified in the United States, but no fatalities have yet occurred.