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WHO finds SARS virus in civet cages

A WHO team said it had found the coronavirus, which causes SARS in cages, housing cats at a restaurant where SARS patients worked.

india Updated: Jan 16, 2004 13:09 IST

A World Health Organization (WHO) team said Friday it had found the coronavirus which causes SARS in cages housing civet cats at a restaurant where one of China's suspected SARS patients worked.

"The cages (where the civet cats are kept) were swabbed and subjected to sophisticated testing," WHO team leader Robert Breiman told reporters at the end of a week-long investigation in SARS-hit southern Guangdong province.

"Those tests did reveal in each of the cases the presence of coronavirus. Not in one cage actually, but on essentially all of them," Breiman said.

The cages were at a restaurant in Guangzhou city where one of two people suspected to have Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in Guangdong, a 20-year-old waitress, worked.

Up until now there has been no direct link between civet cats and patients, although some of the earliest SARS victims from last year's outbreak, which killed 349 people from 5,237 infections in China, were wildlife dealers.

This month scientists from mainland China and Hong Kong said the virus found in civet cats at wildlife markets was almost identical to the coronavirus found in a Chinese man confirmed to have SARS.

But the man reported having no contact with civets or other animals, except for a mouse.

The findings nonetheless led to a government order to slaughter all civet cats being bred or sold in Guangdong.

Breiman said, however, said the WHO's latest findings did not necessarily mean civet cats transmitted SARS to humans.

"That doesn't necessarily prove anything, but it certainly fits in with the concept that civet cats were carriers," he said.

The waitress has been in quarantine at a hospital for about three weeks and is expected to be released soon. A 35-year-old businessman has also been isolation with suspected SARS, which is highly contagious.

Breiman said the coronavirus was also found on the surfaces of several of the cages in one of the animal markets in Guangzhou.

Many vendors in the markets, however, swear they have never become sick despite working for years with the animals.

"We still don't know exactly what role the civet cats played in the process of transmitting SARS or SARS-like illnesses. We think they are involved in some way ... and there is a possible role for other animals including rodents," he said.

Xu Ruiheng, deputy director of the Guangdong Center for Disease Control and Prevention, told reporters at the same media briefing that the province had finished its civet cat cull.

Wang Zhiqiong, deputy director of Guangdong's health department, said 3,903 civet cats had been killed.

First Published: Jan 16, 2004 13:09 IST