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Evidence suggests link between SARS and civets

Civet cats with the SARS virus were found in a Chinese restaurant where a suspected patient worked, adding indications that animals may be the source of the disease, an official from the World Health Organization said.
Robert Breiman, the WHO's SARS team leader, holds a press conference on Friday in Guangzhou, China, where investigators have found evidence suggesting a possible link between SARS and civets.China Photo / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

Investigators have found evidence that civet cats with the SARS virus were in a restaurant where a suspected patient worked, adding to mounting indications that animals are the source of the disease, a World Health Organization official said Friday.

Also Friday, experts said China’s three SARS cases this season — one confirmed and two suspected — are milder than the outbreak that killed 774 people last year, suggesting they might be caused by a different form of the flu-like virus.

But the WHO team that spent a week in the southern city of Guangzhou studying the three cases reached “no definite conclusions” about possible sources of the disease, said team leader Dr. Robert Breiman. He also said WHO doesn’t consider SARS a public health threat, a timely assurance as millions of Chinese prepare to travel for the Lunar New Year that starts Jan. 22.

In Guangzhou, WHO investigators tested samples from the restaurant that employed the 20-year-old waitress suspected to have SARS and where civet cat — a regional delicacy — was on the menu. They found evidence of the SARS virus on cages that held the animals, Breiman said.

“Not only were there civet cats there, but at some point civet cats that were carrying the SARS coronavirus,” he said at a news conference, adding that experts also found “many, many cages” with the virus at two live-animal markets.

Earlier research that suggested a possible link between civets and the confirmed SARS case prompted large-scale slaughter of the animals in Guangzhou and surrounding Guangdong province.

Still no conclusive proof
Rodents also are suspected carriers although “there isn’t conclusive proof,” said Breiman who recommended trapping them for testing. Guangzhou is exterminating thousands of rats in a campaign that began after the killing of civets.

The first known case of severe acute respiratory syndrome was recorded in November 2002 in Guangdong, where experts suspect it jumped to humans from civets or other wildlife. The outbreak sickened more than 8,000 people around the world before subsiding in June.

This year, China’s three cases have been milder, Breiman and Chinese experts said.

The patients had fevers for shorter periods and, unlike many people stricken earlier, didn’t need respirators to breathe, said Wang Zhiqiong, deputy director-general of the Guangdong Public Health Department.

The confirmed case already has been pronounced cured and was released last week from a Guangzhou hospital, while the two suspected patients are said to be doing well.

Disease may have mutated
“Is this a variant of SARS? Is this perhaps a slightly different illness?” Breiman said. He said scientists expected to be able to answer such questions in the near future.

However, researchers haven’t been able to isolate live samples of the virus this year, “so we can’t say for sure how great the change is,” said Dr. Xu Ruiheng, deputy director of the Guangdong Center for Disease Control.

Guangdong slaughtered 3,903 civets and 665 other wild animals between Jan. 1 and Monday, Wang said. She said the province had asked neighboring regions to block people from shipping civets to Guangdong and has set up checkpoints at its borders to check incoming traffic.

The province imposed a similar ban on the eating of the weasel-like animals in April but lifted it in August. Xu said he recommended that this time, the prohibition become permanent, although it wasn’t clear when that might happen.

Another WHO team traveled to the neighboring region of Guangxi on Thursday, though the agency stressed that the trip — planned two months ago — wasn’t in response to any case in the area but only because of its proximity to Guangdong.