The coronavirus that causes SARS has existed in wild birds for hundreds of years but has lately made the leap to humans by chance, a noted US-based virologist said in Taipei yesterday. Dr. Michael Lai (賴明詔), a Taiwan-born professor at the University of Southern California who heads a World Health Organization (WHO) coronavirus research team, said the coronavirus also exists in certain other animals, including cattle, pigs, chickens and rats.
But genetic sequencing shows that the coronavirus that causes SARS is more like the version that originates in wild birds, Lai said.
As to how the SARS virus made the leap to humans, Lai said it may have been the result of people in Guangdong Province eating raw or half-cooked coronavirus-infected bird meat. Guangdong is where the first cases of SARS in humans were reported.
Lai, who arrived in Taipei on Thursday to assist in the campaign against the disease, said there have been drugs to treat coronavirus-infected animals.
This is good news for efforts to develop vaccines and cures for SARS-infected humans, Lai said. But he acknowledged that many uncertainties and difficulties still stand in the way.
"We still don't understand a lot about the virus' behavior in the human body, and it will take time to unravel the mystery, " Lai said, adding that it may take at least four or five years to develop a vaccine or an effective cure for SARS.
Noting that SARS-virus research requires sophisticated instruments and equipment, Lai said Taiwan should establish a top-grade laboratory.
Lai, 61, has dedicated himself to coronavirus research for some 30 years. Nearly all the textbooks on coronavirus used by US medical college students have been written by Lai.
He is scheduled to assume the post of vice president of Academia Sinica in July.
Meanwhile Taipei City reported 14 new cases of SARS on Saturday, but none of them were related to Taipei Municipal Hoping Hospital, Mayor Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) said yesterday.
This marked the first time that no new Hoping-related SARS case was reported in a day since the hospital was sealed off April 24 due to a mass transmission of the disease inside the facility, Ma said. A total of 219 Hoping-related SARS cases have so far been reported.
Ma also said he has taken a bit of comfort in the drop in the new SARS caseload in the city, which fell from 37 on Friday to 14 on Saturday. Taipei has accounted for 69 percent of the nation's total reported SARS cases, but Ma said many of the reported cases are still pending tests to determine whether they are SARS infections.