updated 10/15/2003 6:24:56 PM ET 2003-10-15T22:24:56

China is lifting its ban on trade in civet cats, an animal considered a delicacy in southern China that researchers have suggested is linked to the spread of SARS, according to state media and the government forestry agency.

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The decision came despite warnings by some researchers that the virus could be widespread in wildlife and might re-emerge during the coming winter.

The Forestry Administration said on its Web site that it is lifting the ban on trade in 54 types of wildlife that was imposed during the SARS outbreak. The announcement did not identify which animals would be affected. However, two state-controlled newspapers said the list includes civet cats.

Officials at the forestry agency were not available for comment.

Researchers said they had discovered the virus in civet cats, a mammal related to the mongoose, found in markets mainly in southern China’s Guangdong province, where the first SARS cases occurred last November, raising the possibility the human strain of the disease came from animals.

At a recent conference, Dr. Hume Field, an Australian veterinary expert, said that if animals are confirmed to be the source of SARS in humans, “eradication is highly improbable.”

Severe acute respiratory syndrome killed more than 800 people worldwide, most of them in Asia, before subsiding last month, according to WHO.

In China, more than 5,300 people were sickened by SARS and 349 died, with more than half of those in the capital, Beijing, the hardest-hit city in the world.

Authorities in Guangdong banned trade in wildlife in late May following suspicions that the virus might have come from wild animals sometimes eaten by Chinese. Traveling animal shows were ordered to cancel performances, and restaurants that specialize in wild game dishes were ordered to turn over any live animals, as officials raided markets to enforce the ban.

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