One more reason for 'catch and release.'
Civet Cats May Be Source of SARS Outbreak
The civet cat, a member of the mongoose family, is being blamed for passing SARS to humans. (The Associated Press)
By Gady A. Epstein
The Baltimore Sun
BEIJING -- The virus that has puzzled scientists and killed close to 700 people worldwide appears to have leaped to humans from an animal in the mongoose family, the civet cat, that until recently was favored dinner table fare in southern China, scientists announced Friday in Hong Kong.
"From genetic information, it is highly likely that the [SARS] virus jumped from civet cats to humans," Yuen Kwok-Yung, microbiology professor at Hong Kong University, said at a news conference. Researchers in Shenzhen in neighboring Guangdong province, where the virus emerged last fall, concurred in the finding.
Researchers who examined eight species of animals taken from a live animal market also found the virus in a badger and a dog breed known as a raccoon dog.
World Health Organization officials cautioned that the findings were preliminary and need further study, because the animals might have been infected by tainted feed or by people. But authorities said verifying a specific animal source -- or "reservoir" -- would be vital in preventing future outbreaks.
"As long as there is an animal reservoir of infection -- rather like ebola virus where that reservoir has never been found -- there is a potential for reintroduction into humans," said Meirion Evans, a WHO team member who visited Guangdong and has suggested that SARS likely came from a wild animal.
"One could foresee a situation where the current SARS epidemic is pretty much brought under control, but if you haven't pinpointed where it came from in the first place, the door is always open for the infection to reoccur and the epidemic to reoccur," Evans said.
WHO meanwhile lifted its advisory Friday against travel to Hong Kong and Guangdong provinces, saying that SARS was under control there. The organization left in place warnings against nonessential travel to Taiwan, Beijing and the provinces of Hebei, Inner Mongolia, Shanxi and Tianjin.
The interest in animals as a possible source of SARS goes back almost to the first outbreak of the virus. Early anecdotal evidence in southern China indicated that an unusual number of wild animal handlers might have been infected. Chinese officials discussed this connection in late winter at a secret meeting of experts from across Guangdong province, but government has not publicly released statistics on early cases.
Yuen said animal handlers risked infection from the feces or respiratory droplets of the civet cats. The animals, which are not true cats, are 2 to 3 feet long with long tails and weigh as much as 25 pounds.
Like other source animals for viruses, the civet cats themselves do not suffer ill effects from the SARS coronavirus.
If the link to civet cats is confirmed, Chinese authorities could respond by tightly regulating or banning the sale of the breed or by authorizing the wholesale slaughter of the animal.
Or version "Two" of "it came from outer space ... "
Is SARS from outer space?
By Lauren Compton
Friday, May 23, 2003 Posted: 1721 GMT ( 1:21 AM HKT)
Some scientists think comets have seeded the solar system with organic material.
• Possible microbe from space discovered
• World Health Organization
LONDON, England (CNN) -- The SARS virus might have originated in outer space, according to a scientist in Britain.
In a letter to The Lancet medical journal, professor Chandra Wickramasinghe of Cardiff University suggests the virus was introduced to Earth on a comet or meteorite.
Comets are known to contain many organic chemicals as well as water.
But international scientists are still undecided about research from 1996 purporting to show ancient bacterial forms in a meteorite from Mars.
The professor and his team estimate a tonne of bacterial material falls to Earth from space each day.
To support his theory, the professor highlights the unique nature and sudden appearance of SARS in China.
He points to other mysterious modern epidemics like the Plague of Athens and the influenza pandemic of 1917-19 as also originating from the skies.
If the claim is true, travel alerts in China and Canada at the height of the SARS epidemic might not have been enough to stop the virus spreading.
Indeed, the professor warns it could still be circulating in the atmosphere, set to fall anywhere on Earth without warning.
"We should remain vigilant for the appearance of new foci (unconnected with infective contacts or with China) almost anywhere on the planet.
"New cases might continue to appear until the stratospheric supply of the caustic agent becomes exhausted," he said.
However, Professor Wickramasinghe admits there is no hard evidence for his theory, which has been ridiculed by some of his contemporaries.
"I think it is completely nuts," Dr. Anne Bridgen, a molecular virologist at the University of Ulster, told Reuters news agency.
"It has a lipid (fatty) coat on the outside and it would tend to dry out in an atmosphere such as space."
Professor Ian Jones, an expert in virology at the University of Reading in southern England, described the idea as bizarre.
And a spokesman for the World Health Organization told CNN though theoretically possible, there was no evidence to support such a claim.
"I find it hard to believe that it came from outer space. We won't be sending a WHO team to investigate."
Meanwhile, researchers in Hong Kong say they might have traced the SARS to civet cats, a delicacy eaten by some Chinese.
The claim came after a month-long investigation by Hong Kong and Chinese scientists tracking the source of the disease
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