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Several Wild Animals Implicated as Possible SARS Carriers

Several wild animals were implicated as possible carriers of the deadly corona virus that caused acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, in humans. Now, researchers have found that the virus is easily transmitted to other animals, raising concerns about future outbreaks.

Severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, causes a pneumonia-like illness. The disease, which primarily struck in Asia, proved fatal to more than 700 people before it was contained by public health workers last summer.

Researchers traced SARS to the corona virus in the civet cat, and other wild animals that are eaten as a delicacy in China. Now, researchers are concerned that the range of animals that can harbor the SARS virus is more widespread than previously thought.

Investigators at the Institute of Virology at Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands have found that the corona virus, a version of the common cold virus, is easily transmitted to domestic cats and ferrets, and from them to other uninfected animals.

The investigators made the discovery in the course of trying to infect different species of animals with the SARS virus to find ones that could be used to test vaccines and other treatments.

Albert Osterhaus, lead author on the study, calls the virus "promiscuous." "That means that we should also take into account that, as far as wild animals are concerned, probably a broad spectrum of animals can be infected," he said.

Professor Osterhaus said scientists are not worried that domestic pets could cause another human SARS outbreak. But he said they are concerned about another outbreak linked to wild animals. "Since, at this stage, the ban has been lifted in China to bring wild game animals to the market places for consumption, we should consider that several different animal species might contain the virus, and pose a threat to humans," he said.

The study on the SARS virus infection of cats and ferrets is published in the current issue of Nature magazine.