Beijing Hoodwinks WHO Inspectors

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Registration at Beijing's No. 309 Hospital. Doctors say up to 40 SARS patients may have been moved from their wards

Friday, April 18, 2003

Before World Health Organization inspectors visited Beijing hospitals earlier this week, hospital officials removed dozens of SARS patients from their isolation wards and transferred them to locations where they could not be observed by the inspectors, doctors at those hospitals have told TIME. On Tuesday, just hours before the WHO's inspection team arrived, more than 40 confirmed SARS patients at the capital's No. 309 People's Liberation Army Hospital were transferred out of their beds to the Zihuachun Hotel on the hospital grounds and at the China Japan Friendship Hospital 31 confirmed SARS patients, all doctors, nurses and hospital workers, were packed into ambulances and driven around Beijing for the duration of the WHO team's visit, the doctors said.

These doctors' revelations are the latest in a string of disclosures by local medical personnel that suggest the staggering extent of Beijing's cover up of the deadly outbreak. China's Ministry of Health came under fire for underreporting cases in the capital and elsewhere in China early last week when doctors around the country began to report caseloads of SARS victims that radically contradicted the ministry's official figures for the disease. Citing concern over "rumors" of unreported SARS cases the WHO announced late last week that it had been granted permission to conduct a five-day inspection tour of the capital's medical facilities in order to ascertain the truth about how Beijing was handling the outbreak.

On Tuesday, TIME received a letter from an informed local medical source charging that in order to prepare for the WHO team's arrival, Beijing's No. 302 People's Liberation Army Hospital, already full to capacity with SARS patients, had emptied its two infectious disease wards of SARS patients. According to the source, "The 302 hospital originally had two wings devoted to infectious respiratory diseases where SARS patients were being treated. But now there are only a handful of SARS patients remaining, all of whom are already well on their way to recovering. Several severely ill SARS patients have been transferred to a third wing which is not a ward for infectious respiratory diseases. As for the other patients, I wonder where they've been moved." The WHO team met with officials at the No. 302 Hospital, but never toured the wards.

Yesterday, a TIME reporter received a telephone call from another source saying that just after WHO team members said they would make a last-minute visit to the China Japan Friendship Hospital, patients were "rushed into ambulances and driven around the city for several hours." The source, who refused to give her name, said that "nurses at the hospital were furious that they had been confined to ambulances with contagious patients." She added that at the No. 309 Hospital on Tuesday SARS patients had been transferred to an "inn" on the hospital grounds.

Last night, a TIME reporter spoke by telephone with a doctor at the China Japan Friendship Hospital who confirmed this story. "Yes, what you've heard is true," he told TIME. "We have 56 confirmed SARS patients at our hospital but the hospital has only reported 41 to the authorities. Among the 56 there are 31 doctors, nurses and hospital workers. It was these 31 who were put into the ambulances. The other SARS patients were in their beds for the WHO's inspection." According to the doctor, the staff at the China Japan Friendship Hospital were infected in late March while treating a Taiwanese SARS patient who later died of the disease. A spokeswoman from the hospital, surnamed Liu, refused to comment on the doctor's story and told TIME's reporter to call the Beijing Municipal Health Bureau. The Health Bureau referred TIME to a local English language SARS information hotline.

A doctor at the No. 309 Hospital also confirmed the source's story. "We moved 46 of our SARS patients to the Zihuachun hotel on Tuesday," he said, "There were about 10 SARS patients in the ward when the WHO team visited. The hotel is being disinfected now. I don't think it will open again. It was going to be renovated anyway." But when TIME called the No. 309 Hospital's main office to ask about the transfer of patients, a man who refused to give his name said, "We are not answering any questions," and then hung up.

A retired senior doctor who once treated high-ranking Communist party cadres also spoke with TIME last night and confirmed that Beijing is continuing to deliberately hide SARS cases. "I've seen an internal Ministry of Health report which puts the number of confirmed SARS cases in Beijing at between 200 and 300, based on accounts from individual hospitals," she said, "Another internal document I've seen says that in the last 10 days there have been more than 100 new cases reported in Beijing." Publicly, the Ministry of Health maintains that there have only been 37 SARS cases in Beijing.

Over the entrance of what used to be the China Japan Friendship Hospital's emergency room is a blue and white banner that reads, "SARS Diagnosis Wing." Seated at a table beneath the banner are three doctors wearing face masks, blue head covers, plastic goggles and disposable gowns. Not an inch of their skin is visible. One doctor rises to approach a TIME reporter. When asked about his hospital's treatment of SARS patients he replies with mounting anger, "I can't tell you any details because I don't want to lose my job. All I can tell you that the government's handling of this matter is absolutely irresponsible."