GUANGZHOU: A group of scientists recently announced that a joint research team had found a genetic link between the SARS coronavirus appearing in civet cats and humans, bearing out claims that the disease had jumped across species.
Health authorities initially blamed the outbreak of the mysterious respiratory illness on the cat-like animal. It was thought that SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, had spread to humans from civet cats that had been slaughtered for their meat.
The results of the research project, jointly conducted by the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, Hong Kong University and the Guangzhou Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, are believed to be the first to provide a genetic basis for how SARS spread.
"Our research has shown that the SARS coronavirus found in human victims is the same as the SARS coronavirus found in civet cats," said Wang Ming, an official from the Guangzhou Centre for Disease Control and Prevention.
Wang added that the discovery provided proof that civet cats had spread SARS to humans.
Based on the team's findings, Wang advised the public to be cautious about eating wild animals, particularly civet cats.
However, civet cats are still being sold in markets around Guangzhou, the capital of South China's Guangdong Province.
Chen Xibiao, an official from the forestry branch of the Guangzhou Public Security Bureau, said yesterday that his office had launched a special city-wide campaign to fight against the illegal sale of wild animals, particularly civet cats.
SARS first appeared in South China's Guangdong Province in November 2002 and spread to 24 provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities.
In early 2004, Scientists detected the SARS coronavirus in six civet cats at a restaurant where a female worker had been diagnosed with the illness.
"We also detected SARS infections in civet cats at an animal market prior to the launch of this research project, but we were not able to directly link the civet cats to the SARS patient," Wang said.
Scientists then brought the six civet cats from the restaurant back to the laboratory, where tests showed that the disease the animals carried had the same genetic profile as the coronavirus affecting the SARS patient, Wang said.
"This discovery proves that civet cats are capable of spreading the SARS virus to human beings," Wang said.
The team was recently award a prize for scientific and technological development in Guangzhou in recognition of their work.
"Our research also proved that government efforts to cull civet cats immediately after the out-break of SARS were worthwhile," Wang said.
(China Daily 11/23/2006 page3)