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The deadly SARS pandemic, which has claimed more than 500 lives worldwide, originated as a bioweapon in a U.S. research lab, according to the Hong Kong newspaper Wenweipo.

The Wenweipo article entitled, “Earliest SARS outbreak suspected in U.S.,” cites reports by the Associated Press and Reuters about a 45-year-old woman who became gravely ill on Feb. 9, 2002, while taking part in her mortgage company’s annual sales convention near Philadelphia. Her symptoms included headache, fever, chills, vomiting and shortness of breath. After being hospitalized, she died early the next morning.

The hospital was placed under a short-term quarantine and more than 80 people suspected of having had close contact with the woman were examined. Seven were held in the hospital for further observation.

The newspaper suggested the incident was covered up and speculates it represented the original outbreak of SARS.

Several Taiwan media outlets reprinted and broadcast the story.

But a Taiwan News editorial debunks the report. It points out the Wenweipo failed to mention that the hospital subsequently announced the woman had apparently died of bacterial pneumonia. SARS, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, is a viral disease.

The Taiwan News editorial further notes the Wenweipo is a well known mouthpiece for Beijing among China watchers and its editorials and articles frequently serve as “trial balloons” for Beijing policy-makers. It concludes the Wenweipo’s “excavation and creative remix of a news story more than a year old” is an attempt by the Chinese Communist Party to deflect criticism for its handling of the epidemic.

As WorldNetDaily reported, China’s government admitted April 19 there were more than seven times as many SARS cases in Beijing than it had reported, conceding there had been 339 cases in the capital, 18 deaths and an additional 402 suspected cases. Today, mainland China’s death toll rose to 230 and more than 4,600 others have been infected.

Beijing, the worst-affected city, reported 114 fatalities, 2,177 confirmed cases and more than 18,000 people quarantined.

“The epidemic shows signs of declining,” Liang Wannian, deputy director-general of the city Health Bureau told reporters today, explaining that new cases had fallen to 30-40 per day. That compares to 70-80 a day reported last month.

Still, the virus remains deadly. The World Health Organization, or WHO, hiked its estimated global death rate for SARS cases yesterday to 14-15 percent.

Yesterday, WHO added Taiwan to its travel-alert list as 18 new cases surfaced there, bringing the total to 149, with 14 deaths.

Deaths have been recorded throughout Asia, including 27 in Singapore, five in Vietnam, two in Malaysia, two in the Philippines and two in Thailand.

Canada, the only country outside Asia to report SARS deaths, has recorded 23 fatalities.

The Asian Development Bank forecast economic losses due to SARS of $20 billion in the four most vulnerable economies – China, Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan.

Chinese dissident Harry Wu predicts the economic blow of the epidemic could undermine the communist regime, and may become China’s Chernobyl. The 1986 nuclear reactor disaster and its subsequent cover-up by Moscow proved a public-relations nightmare that led to political reforms in the former Soviet Union.

SARS has sparked civil unrest. In one incident, thousands of villagers in Chagugang town, a rural area outside the port city Tianjin, reacted violently to the government’s decision to use a school as an isolation facility. Residents torched the school, ransacked government offices and overturned cars. A local official told the Agence France-Presse 30-40 people took part in the destruction, while the rest of the crowd of roughly 2,000 cheered.

SARS surfaced as a mystery illness in China’s Guangdong province in November. WorldNetDaily reported some virologists implicate the farming practices common in the southern provinces of China, where farmers raise hens, ducks, pigs and fish in one integrated system. They use the droppings and leftover food from the pigs to feed the fowl. The fowl droppings, in turn, help fertilize the fish ponds. This opens the door for viruses to mutate and jump species.

“The most likely scenario is that [SARS] has been circulating in another species in southern China, and human beings came in contact with it this past autumn, perhaps in an agricultural setting,” said Dr. Stephen Morse, author of “Emerging Viruses.” “It is interesting that this part of Asia is the same geographic area from which most known influenza pandemics have arisen.”

Related articles:

Epidemic outbreak ‘China’s Chernobyl’

SARS sparks civil unrest

Did SARS mutate from animal feces?

Businesses unprepared for calamity?

No SARS testing at U.S. airports

China admits major SARS cover-up

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