Homes quarantined as killer virus panic grips Hong Kong

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The Independent Online

Not much shakes Hong Kong's brash self-confidence: by night, its skyscrapers still beam their corporate logos defiantly across the harbour at the Chinese mainland, and the bars on Hong Kong island still pulsate with big, balding expatriates and small, slinky Asian girls.

Not much shakes Hong Kong's brash self-confidence. By night, its skyscrapers still beam their corporate logos defiantly across the harbour at the Chinese mainland. The bars on Hong Kong island still pulsate with big, balding expatriates and small, slinky Asian girls.

But there is an edge to the partying, and a gallows humour that fends off fears of what tomorrow may bring. This is a city struggling to quell a rising sense of panic. The lethal pneumonia virus advancing through the population of Hong Kong is showing no sign of retreat. The biggest one-day rise in cases was yesterday, with 92 more victims, and city authorities announced draconian new powers to curb its spread.

Amoy Gardens, a poor housing estate of Soviet-style, 30-storey tower blocks near Kowloon bay has had 213 cases of severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) since the outbreak began a month ago, 107 of them in Block E. That was placed in quarantine yesterday under powers first used by the British more than a century ago to control plague.

White-coated officials in surgical masks and thick, black, rubber gloves gathered at the entrance to the block, sorting ration parcels of rice, toothpaste and disinfectant from the local Wellcome supermarket. The 264 families will be confined to their tiny apartments for 10 days until midnight on 9 April under the order made by Yeoh Eng-Kiong, the Health Secretary, yesterday.

Like a modern leper colony, they will be brought three meals a day but are forbidden from entering or leaving the building without written permission from a health officer. One young couple showed what many residents felt, by stalking silently off the estate, arm in arm, after rebuffing entreaties from officials.

Only 120 of the 264 families have so far registered their presence in the block and many have already fled to other, safer neighbourhoods, raising accusations against the authorities that they have acted too late, allowing fleeing residents to spread the disease further.

But the true significance of Amoy Gardens is potentially much more worrying, not only for Hong Kong but for the world. Up to now, public health experts and the World Health Organisation have stressed that transmission of the new virus has been confined to those with "close contact" with an infected person, family members or health workers.

Amoy Gardens provides the first evidence of community spread, suggesting that the virus could be airborne. If that is so, the rate of infection could accelerate as the virus gains a firmer hold. Doctors believe it was brought to the estate by one man who had visited his brother, who had the disease, in the Prince of Wales hospital, four times before victims were placed in isolation.

Peter Cordingley, spokes-man for WHO in Manila, which covers Hong Kong, said yesterday: "We are completely baffled by Amoy Gardens. We have got a team in there looking at it. The affected families are all on one side of Block E. Did they all get in the same lift, was the virus on the lift buttons, was it on the pipes or dripping from the air conditioning? It is worrying. When you get families on different floors infected, you don't know what is going on."

His anxiety echoed earlier remarks by Julie Gerberding, director of the US Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia, who said her team was "carefully monitoring" the possibility of airborne transmission, adding that she was "obviously concerned" about the Amoy Gardens outbreak.

She said: "We recognise this as an epidemic that is evolving differently in different geographies. [The virus] does appear to be transmitted very efficiently [and] the potential for infecting large numbers of people is very great. We may be in the early stages of a much larger problem. We don't know everything about it."

Globally, cases now total 1,600 with 62 deaths in 15 countries. Canada recorded eight more cases and a fourth death on Sunday. Officials declared a health emergency, isolating two hospitals. China agreed to report new cases daily, though most observers believe its total of 806 cases reported to the end of last week is a serious underestimate of the true position.

But the unremitting growth of the epidemic in Hong Kong is taking an increasing social and economic toll. The city is struggling to maintain a sense of normality. Every fourth person on the streets is wearing a surgical mask, schools are closed, companies have sent workers home, flights have been cancelled and usually packed markets and squares are deserted.

Although the number of deaths, at 55 out of more than 1,500 cases, is no higher than for influenza, it is the unknown nature of the threat that has gripped this city. It is the disease with no name. It is nature's terrorism.