WHO: SARS-like coronavirus linked to animals

World Health Organization experts said Friday in Guangzhou that they have found SARS or a SARS-like coronavirus linked to animals like the civet cat.

Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests have been conducted on samples collected from animal cages and returned positive results, WHO epidemiologist Robert Breiman said.

Considering the cages from the restaurant where the 20-year-oldwoman suspected SARS patient worked and from a live animal market all contained civet cats, experts agreed that at some point civet cats were carrying the SARS coronavirus.

Breiman said the tests were conducted by experts from the WHO and China's Health Ministry at laboratories under Guangdong Centerfor Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The experts completed tests on the samples collected from the restaurant, but some samples from the animal market remained untested.

"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 played in spreading the virus," Breiman said.

As other rodents like badgers and raccoons were also held in the cages in the restaurant, Breiman said it was possible those animals were also involved in the spread of SARS.

Tests had also been carried out on samples collected from the environment. Breiman said test results led experts to believe that humans were infected with the SARS virus directly from animals during last SARS outbreak, which also left the virus in the environment and humans in turn were infected indirectly from the environment.

The joint mission of the WHO and the Health Ministry has been in Guangzhou, capital of south China's Guangdong Province, for ten days. They had visited the one diagnosed and two suspected SARS patients' apartments and work places and Guangzhou's biggest live animal market, collecting samples.

Xu Ruiheng, deputy head of the Guangdong CDC, said the tests by the joint mission verified the test results of his center and proved that Guangdong's cull and ban on transporting, cooking, and eating civet cats were reasonable

Meanwhile, Breiman praised Chinese health authorities for their efforts in preventing the spread of SARS.

He said SARS should not be considered an immediate public health threat in China since there was only one diagnosed and two suspected SARS cases so far and it was not necessary to suggest Guangdong change its New Year transport plan.

He said the Chinese mainland, including Guangdong, had made remarkable progress in its SARS prevention mechanisms, including epidemiological investigation, patient diagnosis, and contact tracing.

"We don't regard SARS at this moment as a particular public health threat," Breiman said, adding the WHO believed that the disease would not return on the same scale as last year.

Another WHO team traveled to Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, neighboring Guangdong, on Thursday. The WHO China office stressed that the trip was not in response to any SARS cases in the region.

The visit was planned two months ago because Guangxi had a similar climate and geographical setting as Guangdong as well as a large number of wild animals, said WHO China representative Henk Bekedam.



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