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Wild Civet Cats Likely Source of SARS, Say HK Researchers - 2003-05-23


A Hong Kong researcher says a wild animal considered a dining delicacy is the carrier of a virus that causes SARS. The finding fits earlier speculation that Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome originated in wild animals.

Hong Kong University revealed Friday that the civet cat, a wild animal indigenous to southern China, is the likely source of the virus that causes Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.

Dr. K.Y. Yuen said researchers at the Shenzhen Center of Disease Control found four strains of the virus in a large percentage of civet cats. "From a special type of civet cat, we are able to isolate the coronavirus," he said, "and this coronavirus on genomic analysis was found to be very similar to the coronavirus causing SARS in humans. But if you cannot control the further jumping of such virus from animals to human, the same epidemic can occur again."

The civet, a small long mammal with short legs and a pointed snout, is a delicacy in southern Chinese cuisine. Dr. Yuen says the disease likely jumped from animal to human when it was being killed or prepared for cooking.

But the cats themselves do not display any signs of illness, according to Dr. Yuen, perhaps indicating their immune system might be geared toward controling the virus. Dr. Yuen said the finding might not lead to a vaccine or cure for SARS in humans, but he urged people in China to stop selling the animals in food markets to limit possible transmission of the virus.

In a separate development, the World Health Organization on Friday lifted its travel advisory on Hong Kong and the Chinese province of Guangdong. Hong Kong's leader Tung Chee-hwa welcomed the decision.

The advisory went into effect on April 2, when the WHO saw the disease spreading rapidly through Hong Kong, and no one knew why or how. Airlines, hotels and restaurants suffered huge losses, as tourists and business travelers deferred visits to the region and Hong Kong residents stayed home.

Detected in southern China last November, SARS started spreading in Hong Kong in early March. It was then carried to other cities around the world by airline travelers. The disease, which causes a potentially deadly pneumonia, has afflicted more than 8,000 people worldwide with almost 90 percent of cases occurring in China and Hong Kong. Globally, SARS has killed more than 700 people.