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Asia Times
May 12, 2003
Russia puts China at SARS length
By Sergei Blagov

MOSCOW - In a sign of a growing anxiety over the threat of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS ), Russian authorities have limited exchanges with China and are considering completely sealing off the vast land border to halt the spread of the deadly virus.

Local authorities in Russia's Far East are taking emergency measures to prevent SARS entering their region. Notably, on Sunday, Russia's far-eastern city of Khabarovsk refused to accept a Chinese airliner and ordered it back to China. The MD-80 aircraft, carrying some 100 passengers and owned by China Northern Airlines, was forced to return to Kharbin as the Khabarovsk local authorities have banned travel to and from China.

Russia is going to close nearly a half of the crossing points along its border with China, Russian Transportation Minister Sergei Frank announced on Saturday. Only those points with adequate sanitary controls in place would remain open, Frank was quoted by the RIA news agency as saying.

There are 24 crossing posts along a 4,000 kilometer common frontier between Russia and China, while hundreds of thousands of people cross the border every year.

As Russia diagnosed its first case of SARS earlier this month, on May 8 Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov assembled a special cabinet meeting to discuss the threat. He urged "to safeguard the population from this threat", RIA reported Kasyanov as telling the meeting.

The government discussion followed the discovery of the first case of atypical pneumonia in Russia. Denis Soynikov, 25, was diagnosed with SARS in the town of Blagoveshchensk in Amur region of the Russian Far East. So far some 25 suspected cases of SARS have been reported in Russia.

Meanwhile, Russian officials vow not to fully cut high-level diplomatic contacts with China, the country worst affected by the disease. On May 7, Russian foreign ministry spokesman was quoted by RIA as saying that there were no changes in the schedule of official exchanges between Moscow and Beijing. Russia is actively preparing to welcome Chinese leader Hu Jintao later in May, the agency said.

However, Viktor Shudegov, head of the health committee of the Federation Council, the upper house of the Russian parliament, announced that the council had already canceled a trip to China by its delegation scheduled for June.

The Russian Civil Aviation Authority has ordered all airlines that fly to China, as well as Hong Kong and Taiwan, to stop selling passenger flights, air freight and postal deliveries to those destinations. A telegram, signed by Deputy Transportation Minister Alexander Neradko, who is head of the civil aviation authority, told the airlines to prepare for a possible suspension of all air services to China.

Four Russian carriers offer regular services to China - Aeroflot, KrasAir, Dalavia and Eastline. Passengers already possessing tickets and cargo already arranged for transfer can still fly to China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Not only Russian airlines have been affected by the SARS scare. On May 8, Russia's Railway Minister Guennady Fadeyev announced that the country's railway sector now spends 200 million rubles (some US$7 million) a month to prevent the spread of SARS. Authorities in the Amur and Khabarovsk regions have virtually closed their border with China, only allowing Chinese and Russian citizens to return home. From May 3, Russia's Amur region halted all riverine passenger and freight services between Russian and China. Earlier this month, the Primorye region announced a ban on visa-free travel to and from China for a month, shutting four out of five road checkpoints and all three rail crossing-points.

Russia's Deputy Health Minister Gennady Onishchenko said that the government was considering closing the border with China. "Only Chinese citizens should be allowed to leave and only Russian citizens should be allowed in," said Onishchenko, who heads the State Health Inspectorate. He said he could not rule out the possibility that Russia might close its border with China, but noted such a measure would harm the economy.

Although thousands kilometers away from the Chinese border, Moscow municipal authorities also pledge to prevent SARS from spilling into the capital. Moscow's chief doctor, Nikolai Filatov, said that the metro and all other forms of public transportation would be disinfected once a week. He said an anti-viral disinfectant would be sprayed in metro stations, buses, trolleybuses and trams during off-hours.

A 24-hour SARS hotline at 216-9000 has been opened, and the Health Ministry is printing millions of brochures outlining measures that Moscow residents can take to avoid contracting the virus. The hotline already has been reportedly receiving many calls.

There are sizable Chinese and Vietnamese communities in the Russian capital. On May 5, Moscow authorities ordered to set up medical posts at all city markets, notably those controlled by Chinese and Vietnamese traders.

The mayor of the central Russian city of Tula has reportedly called for illegal Vietnamese and Chinese immigrants living in the city to be isolated at a special camp to avoid the spread of SARS. Citing a shortage of funds to repatriate them, mayor Sergei Kazakov reportedly stated that the alleged illegal migrants should be placed in a forested reservation and made to work.

The SARS scare has also inspired some conspiracy theories in Russia. Last month, Professor Sergei Kolesnikov, a member of the Russian Academy of Medical Science, made several public statements claiming that SARS could have been a created virus, originally developed as a bioweapon prototype. However, Galina Lazikova, head of the epidemiology control department at Russia's Health Ministry, dismissed such speculation. The SARS virus spreads too slowly and its deadliness is too low to be a bioweapon, she said.

Nonetheless, Russia's biotechnology research center Vector has reportedly accepted samples of SARS virus for further research in order to work out a vaccine. Incidentally, Vector, based in Novosibirsk, Siberia, used to be former USSR's top bioweapon research center.

No big wonder that the SARS scare has spilled to other former Soviet states. On May 7, Kazakh Prime Minister Emangali Tasmagambetov ordered new measures to prevent its spread, including a halt of railway services and flights to China. By May 20, Kazakhstan may close its border with China.

Another Central Asian state, Uzbekistan, followed the suit. On May 9, Uzbekistan chief sanitary official Bakhtiyar Niyazmatov announced that the Central Asian state had halted all flights to China, Malaysia and Thailand.

Meanwhile, crooks have also moved to capitalize on the SARS scare. Earlier this month, some self-appointed medical workers promoted so-called "anti-SARS vaccine" in Yerevan, Armenia, charging the local equivalent of $1 per injection.

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