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Paul Martin hopes to follow in the footsteps of Jean Chrétien, but yesterday it was the Prime Minister who followed Mr. Martin's lead by sipping soup at a restaurant in Toronto's Chinatown to ease fears of SARS.

Mr. Chrétien jumped into his limo after attending the funeral of Cardinal Gerald Emmett Carter and headed to the Chinese eatery in the east end of Toronto's downtown. Mr. Martin had braved last week's ice storm to make a similar statement in the larger Chinatown that stretches along Spadina Avenue in the west of the city close to downtown.

The message from the current and aspiring prime ministers was the same: It is safe to eat and shop at Chinese establishments and, although the deadly disease arrived via Hong Kong, there is no reason to blame or shun members of the Asian community.

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Chinese business leaders in Toronto say sales have been down by as much as 80 per cent since the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome began.

"We decided it was the right thing to do because there is no danger, all precautions have been taken," Mr. Chrétien said before ducking into the Luen Fat Sea Food and Barbeque for sweet and sour soup and tea. "I wanted to give an example, the community is hurting."

Meanwhile, even though no evidence exists that the disease can be transmitted through blood transfusions, Health Canada ordered that travellers from countries where the disease is most prevalent be prevented from donating blood for 10 days after arriving in Canada. A similar ban applies to anyone who has been a patient, worked in or visited a health-care facility that is under quarantine for SARS.

The federal government has been criticized for failing to provide compensation to the thousands of people quarantined after a brush with the mysterious illness. Mr. Chrétien was apparently not ready to discuss such compensation during his visit to Chinatown.

"When there are disasters, there is a system that exists that is based on so much, and the province start, and when that goes above a certain level we take the rest, so it has to follow the natural process," he said when asked about financial help for those who are quarantined.

The Prime Minister's Chinatown foray came as the number of cases of SARS across Canada climbed to 253, up 11 from a day earlier. There were 17 new suspected cases of SARS in Ontario yesterday but six people also dropped off the list.

"The new cases that we're talking about today are, of course, a disappointment," said James Young, Ontario's commissioner of public security. While he would prefer to see no increase, Dr. Young said: "I think the encouraging thing out of the figures today is that we're not seeing a particular area, such as another hospital, being involved."

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The outbreak did, however, cause another school closing. Late yesterday, the Toronto District School Board announced that Albert Campbell Collegiate Institute would be closed today because of "significant concern of staff, students, and the community" after Toronto public health quarantined some students and a staff member at the Scarborough secondary school. A number of teaching and support staff raised concerns about the health and safety of their working environment, the school board said.

On Wednesday, health officials including Dr. Young expressed frustration that an employee of Hewlett-Packard Canada Ltd. in Markham, Ont., just north of Toronto, had gone to work while under quarantine and experiencing symptoms of SARS. As a result, 200 of his co-workers also had to be quarantined.

Yesterday, the board of health in York Region consulted the local police to determine if there is a basis for criminal action against the man, who is in hospital with a probable case of SARS.

Keeping possible SARS cases in quarantine has been a problem worldwide. Singapore took drastic measures yesterday to enforce orders on hundreds of people suspected of exposure, including mounting Webcams in homes and threatening to use electronic wrist bands.

Scientists continue to chip away in the search for the precise cause of the disease. Two more studies were published yesterday in the on-line edition of the New England Journal of Medicine that leave little doubt that a new coronavirus is to blame.

A team of German researchers said the new pathogen is only distantly related to known coronaviruses. A second team of international researchers also revealed a tantalizing clue about the origins of SARS: They found that the new human coronavirus behaves in a manner almost identical to a coronavirus that caused an outbreak of respiratory disease among pigs in China. This suggests the pathogen crossed the species barrier from pigs to humans.

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The researchers also suggested the new virus be named Urbani SARS-related coronavirus, in honour of Carlos Urbani, the Italian doctor credited with spotting the outbreak, who died of SARS.

With reports from André Picard and Reuters

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