‘Unknown’ Viral Pneumonia Outbreak in China Has Hong Kong, Taiwan Worried About SARS

‘Unknown’ Viral Pneumonia Outbreak in China Has Hong Kong, Taiwan Worried About SARS
Nurses treat a patient for an unknown ailment in the intensive care unit of the No1 Hospital in Guangzhou, China on June 12, 2003. (Peter Parks/AFP/GettyImages)
Nicole Hao

Hong Kong and Taiwan are on high alert following a notice from Chinese authorities that 27 people contracted an “unknown viral pneumonia” in the central city of Wuhan.

With some netizens likening the outbreak to the deadly severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic that killed almost 800 people in 2002-2003 after being covered up by Chinese authorities, the Hong Kong and Taiwan government have called for faster medical testing after Chinese authorities said they were yet to confirm the cause of the outbreak.

As China has the technology to identify viruses within 48 hours, the authority’s slow response has led many to be suspicious as to why the disease has yet to be identified.

Emergency Notice for New Outbreak

On Dec. 30, Wuhan city Health Commission released an “Emergency Notice About Unknown Pneumonia.” The notice said that several Wuhan hospitals had received pneumonia patients with similar symptoms and that no further details were available.

The notice was soon spread by Chinese netizens via different social media platforms. Although the government soon censored this information, the notice was broadly spread among overseas Chinese communities.

On Dec. 31, state-run media confirmed the outbreak but also did not have any information about the cause of the infections.

The report said patients’ symptoms included fever, having difficulty breathing and invasive lesions in both lungs. 27 people from Wuhan had fallen ill, with seven of them in serious condition.

Most of the patients were sellers at the Huanan Seafood Market located close to Hankou Railway Station in the city’s Jianghan district. That same market was linked to all SARS cases seen in Wuhan in 2003. The market is not limited to selling seafood, netizens said, but also sees various animals including cats, snakes, and marmots.

The notice added that hospitals were planning to release two of the 27 infected people in the next few days after some more treatment, while 18 other patients are in a stable condition.

The state-run People’s Daily reported on the afternoon of Dec. 31 that the initial investigating team didn’t find an obvious human-to-human transmission, and that so far, no medical staff have been infected.

“The cause of the disease is not clear,” the newspaper said on the popular social media platform Weibo, citing unnamed hospital officials. “We cannot confirm it is what’s being spread online, that it is SARS virus. Other severe pneumonia is more likely.”

The Chinese National Health Commission, a cabinet-level executive department for sanitation and health, said it has sent a group of experts to Wuhan on Dec. 31 to lead more tests and another investigation.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong and Taiwan have stepped up border screening and hospitals are on alert.

Hong Kong

Every day, there are four trains that run between Hong Kong and Wuhan. As a result, the presence of the disease in Wuhan has Hongkongers worried.
David Hui Shu-cheong, a professor of respiratory medicine at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told local media on Dec. 31 that the critical situation of Wuhan’s viral pneumonia reminded him of what Hong Kong faced with SARS in 2003.

Hui pointed out that in 2003, one out of four SARS patients was in serious condition. He said mainland authorities should arrange virus tests as soon as possible. Meanwhile, people should wear a facial mask and wash their hands frequently if they plan to go to Wuhan, he added.

Yuen Kwok-yung, microbiology professor at Hong Kong University, tried to calm down the public after acknowledging that the outbreak had similarities to the 1997 outbreak of bird flu and the 2003 outbreak of SARS.

He said at a government-organized press conference on Dec. 31: “Now in Hong Kong and the mainland, the protection is better than 2003 … So I think people shouldn’t panic but must be alert, must follow the instructions from Hong Kong’s Department of Health and Hospital Authority.”


Fears about the disease has been a topic of great concern in Taiwan. People are worried that with the Chinese New Year holiday on Jan. 25, there is a heightened risk that the virus may be spread by Taiwanese businessmen returning from China.
Taiwan’s Centers for Disease Control (CDC) organized a press conference on the afternoon of Dec. 31. Lo Yi-Chun, the CDC’s deputy director, gave a briefing on the situation and said the agency had sent an inquiry email to China requesting information.

Lo said that once the Wuhan side has confirmed the type of virus, the Taiwanese government will set up an emergency working team to coordinate departments reacting to possible infections.

On Jan. 2, Taiwan News reported that a 6-year-old child who arrived in Taiwan on Dec. 31 after passing through Wuhan has developed a fever and is being closely monitored. However, the child was allowed to go home as they had not been traveling in Wuhan and had not been in contact with animals.

Since the first SARS epidemic, no additional cases of the virus have been reported so far worldwide.

The virus was first discovered in China’s Guangdong province in 2002, after which it spread to Hong Kong and other cities. At least 1,755 Hongkongers became infected with the SARS virus, of which 299 died. In neighboring Taiwan, 307 people contracted the virus, of which 47 died.

Globally, a total of 8,096 people from 31 countries contracted SARS, including Singapore, the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia, and the Philippines.

There is currently no cure for SARS.

Nicole Hao is a Washington-based reporter focused on China-related topics. Before joining the Epoch Media Group in July 2009, she worked as a global product manager for a railway business in Paris, France.
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