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.