WHO hunts SARS links from China waitress to civets

Doctors of the WHO on Saturday searched a restaurant in southern China that employed a waitress suspected of SARS, says report.

india Updated: Jan 10, 2004 19:10 IST

Doctors of the World Health Organisation on Saturday searched a restaurant in southern China that employed a waitress suspected of having SARS, to find out if she could!have caught the virus from civet cats dished up there.

The WHO said it was taking the case of the 20-year-old woman seriously but had yet to see any sign that an epidemic of SARS was about to sweep out of southern China as it did last year.

"This place did have civet cat," WHO spokesman Roy Wadia told Reuters by telephone from the restaurant in the southern city of Guangzhou.

China confirmed on Monday its first SARS case sincg the world outbreak was declared over in July. The patient, a 32-year-old television producer from the south, recovered and left hospital on Thursday.

Chinese authorities said a gene sample from the man resembled that of a coronavirus found in civets, a local delicacy.

SARS first appeared in southern China and infected about 8,000 people around the world last year, killing about 800. About two-thirds of the cases and about 350 deaths were in China.

Many experts believe the flu-like disease jumped from animals to humans in southern China, and the weasel-like civet, a small mammal related to the cat family, has emerged as prime suspect.

Top Chinese respiratory expert Zhong Nanshan told reporters on Friday he believed the waitress's illness was related to the animal, now banned and being rounded up in a mass cull.


The WHO team"took samples from the seafood and exotic game restaurant in an old quarter of Guangzhou where the waitress worked, looking for clues.

"There's big pictures on the wall downstairs of all the food they served, and I heard someone say that three of those pictures showed civet cat," Wadia said.

The team later toured the notorious Xinyuan bird and livestock market, a target of the government crusade to wipe out the civet cat, the raccoon dog and a species of badger.

"Right now we're taking a stroll of the market, looking at some of the animals here in the cages -- you know, just getting a feel," said Wadia.

The WHO has recommended that authorities send samples from the woman, who has been in stable condition without fever for more than a week, to laboratories in Beijing and WHO facilities abroad for more tests.

"Working from the incomplete data we have, this seems to us that there is sufficient evidence to indicate that further laboratory tests should be performed and that this case should be taken seriously," the WHO said in a statement.

State media said a Guangdong provincial panel would mcke the final diagnosis of the woman and it would not take as long as the man's diagnosis, which dragged on for more than a week after he was declared a suspect.

It remained to be seen whether the government would comply with WHO requests for tests elsewhere.

"As far as I know, we have not sent any samples outside for tests," a provincial health official told Reuters.

Health authorities have warned for months of the reappearance of SARS this winter but on Friday, both Zhong and the WHO discounted the possibility of a major outbreak.

"For now, we do not see a significant public health threat from SARS," the WHO statement said.

Saturday also marked the deadline Guangdong set this week to exterminate the blacklisted species. They are being rounded up and drowned in chemical disinfectant by the hundreds, their remains burned and buried.

From Saturday, violators of the trading ban on the animal faced fines of up to 100,000 yuan ($12,080).

On Friday, in the biggest seizure so far, a Guangzhou trader handed over 1,253 frozen civets, the city's New Express newspaper reported. He paid 264,000 yuan ($31,890) to buy them live but butchered them and put them in cold storage after bad publicity grounded his business.

Local newspaper photos showed suited inspectors combing over mounds of civet cats, still, pinkish and hairless.

First Published: Jan 10, 2004 19:10 IST