Thu, Oct 30, 2003 - Page 2 News List

Inter-species transmission of SARS being investigated

RESEARCH FOCUS Local and foreign scientists say it is likely a SARS-like virus has existed in animals for a long time but there is no evidence of it jumping to humans

By Joy Su  /  STAFF REPORTER

Staff members of the Taipei Municipal Chung Hsin Hospital give flu shots to homeless people at the Taipei Train Station yesterday. The vaccination program is part of the Taipei City Government's preparations for a possible resurgence in SARS this winter. The similarities of symptoms of the flu and SARS made early diagnosis difficult during the SARS epidemic earlier this year.

PHOTO: CHIANG YING-YING, TAIPEI TIMES

The identification of a SARS-like virus in animals suggest the possibility of inter-species transmission, experts said in Taipei yesterday.

"A virus very similar to that of SARS was recently detected in the Himalayan palm civet, the raccoon dog, and the Chinese ferret badger," said Leo Poon (潘烈文), a professor in the University of Hong Kong's Department of

Microbiology.

He explained that 99 percent of the animal virus was exactly the same as the SARS virus found in humans.

"The only difference is an additional 29 nucleotide sequence in the animal virus," Poon told the International Conference on Influenza and the Resurgence of SARS.

The conference was sponsored by the Center for Disease Control.

In addition to researching animal samples, the study also looked into samples taken from workers, including animal traders and butchers, at a market in Shenzen,China.

According to Poon, 40 percent of those who came into contact with exotic animals at the market on a regular basis tested positive for antibodies against the animal virus. At the same time, only 5 percent of the vegetable traders in the market tested positive.

Poon was quick to clarify, however, that while there is a close relationship between the studied animals and humans, there has been thus far no concrete evidence of the transmission of the animal virus to humans.

He clarified that although the raccoon dog was a culinary delicacy in parts of China, it was unlikely that the virus could be transmitted directly from eating the animal.

He said that it is more likely that inter-species transmission began with animal workers at markets who contracted a mutated virus strain.

"As long as the raccoon dog is well cooked, the virus will not be spread. The heat will kill the virus," Poon said.

Tsai Ching-ping (蔡敬屏), a research fellow at Taiwan's Animal Technology Institute, said that the University of Hong Kong's research was especially useful for this country because it drew on samples in China.

"Many of the animals in the study, we also have here in Taiwan. Furthermore, some people in Taiwan also eat the raccoon dog, just as in China," said Tsai.

Tsai also outlined the direction of future research in this country.

"We plan to have two study groups. We will investigate SARS patients who regularly came into contact with cats and dogs. At the same time, we will be researching wild animals for traces of SARS-like viruses," Tsai said.

"The goal would be to see if the antibody against the animal virus can be used to further SARS treatment in humans," Tsai said.

Poon also confirmed that it was possible for domestic cats to carry a SARS-like virus, adding that future research should take into account more animals.

He said that his study did not identify a natural animal reservoir for the virus and that it was possible that the studied animals actually contracted the virus from other animals.

"It is quite likely that this virus has long existed in animals and just hasn't been well researched," Poon said.

"What we need to find now is where the virus originated so that we can control the possibility of a future outbreak," he said.

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