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[BEIJING] China is to carry out its first clinical trial of a potential drug against severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in an attempt to contain the spread of the virus, which has so far infected 2,601 Chinese citizens and killed 115.

The country's drug authority gave permission for the trial yesterday (24 April). Scientists believe that the drug, called alpha-2b human interferon — which is used to treat hepatitis — could curb the spread of the SARS virus through the human respiratory system. The identity of the group that will be carrying out the trial has not been released.

Even if the drug proves successful in clinical trials, it will not be able to cut off all infection routes of the disease such as by direct contact with bodily fluids, Cao Wenzhuang, director of the State Food and Drug Administration (SFDA)'s registration department told the Xinhua news agency.

He added, however, that the drug — which is applied through a sprayer — could help protect medical professional treating SARS patients. So far, more than 550 doctors and nurses in China who had treated SARS patients had been infected.

The prevailing scientific opinion is that SARS is caused by a new member of the family of viruses known as coronaviruses. But so far no specific medicine or vaccine against SARS has been developed.

The administration has opened a "fast track'' to speed up the approval process for medicines against SARS. According to Cao, the new drug will be put into production immediately after the clinical trial of alpha-2b human interferon is approved by the evaluation committee. SFDA is also organising research institutes and pharmaceutical firms to search for other new medicines, he added.

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