WHO sees more evidence of civet role in SARS

Jan 16, 2004 (CIDRAP News) – World Health Organization (WHO) investigators have found evidence that may link one of the suspected SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) cases in southern China to civets, according to news reports from the region.

Dr. Robert Breiman of WHO said the SARS coronavirus was found in samples from civet cages in a restaurant where a young woman who has suspected SARS worked, according to Associated Press (AP) and Reuters reports today.

"Tests revealed on each cage the SARS coronavirus," an AP report quoted Breiman as telling reporters in Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong. He said it's clear that at some point the cages contained "civet cats that were carrying the SARS coronavirus."

"I think there is very good evidence to think animals are the reservoir and the way the disease gets started, but we still don't know what role the civet cat plays in spreading the virus," an online report by Xinhua, China's state news agency, quoted Breiman as saying. He added that the cages had also contained badgers and raccoons, so those animals might also have been involved in the spread of SARS.

Civets have long been suspected of playing a role in SARS transmission, but SARS experts have stopped short of saying the animals, which are eaten in China, are the natural reservoir of the virus or its conveyor to humans. The US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says on its SARS Web site that "viruses very similar to SARS-CoV" have been found in civets and that some civet handlers have "evidence of infection with SARS-CoV or a very similar virus."

Guangdong currently has two suspected SARS cases—one in the restaurant worker and another in a 35-year-old man, both of whom are reported to be doing well. A case was confirmed Jan 5 in a 32-year-old television producer, also of Guangdong, who has recovered.

Early in January, Guangdong health officials ordered the slaughter of all civets in captivity, following a report by Hong Kong researchers that civets carried a virus similar to the one in the confirmed case. An AP report today said 3,903 civets and 665 other wild animals were slaughtered between Jan 1 and 12.

Guangdong health officials said today that the province would permanently ban the sale and consumption of civets, according to a Reuters report. Earlier in the week, the report said, the head of the Guangzhou Respiratory Disease Research Institute reported a survey in which 70% of civets were found to carry the SARS virus and 40% of game traders carried SARS antibodies.

Breiman, in other comments today, said the recent confirmed and suspected SARS patients have had relatively mild symptoms, suggesting that the current virus may be slightly different from the strain that infected more than 8,000 people in dozens of countries last winter and spring.

"Is this a variant of SARS? Is it less lethal?" Breiman was quoted as saying. "These questions will have to be resolved in labs later on."

According to the Xinhua report, Breiman also said, "We don't regard SARS at this moment as a particular public health threat." He said WHO believes that the disease will not recur on the same scale as it did last year. The reassuring comments came shortly before the start of the Chinese New Year, when hundreds of millions of Chinese travel.

On its Web site, the US CDC this week advised travelers to China to avoid live food markets and direct contact with civets and other wildlife from such markets. In addition, CDC spokesman Dave Daigle said the agency issued an alert this week urging health workers to raise their index of suspicion for SARS, particularly in people with a history of travel to Guangdong. The CDC had no immediate plans for any other SARS-related warnings, Daigle told CIDRAP News.

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