Doctors of the World Health Organization (WHO) yesterday 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 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 said by telephone from the restaurant in the southern city of Guangzhou.
China confirmed on Monday its first SARS case since the world outbreak was pronounced 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 300 deaths were in China.
Many experts believe the flu-like disease jumped from animals to humans in southern China, and the weasel-like civet has emerged as the 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 searched 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 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 make 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 said.
Health authorities have warned for months of the reappearance of SARS this winter but on Friday, 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.
Yesterday also marked the deadline Guangdong set last week in its crusade to wipe out the civet cat and several other species. They are being rounded up and drowned in chemical disinfectant by the hundreds, their remains incinerated and buried.
From yesterday, violators of the trading ban on the animal were subject to fines of up to 100,000 yuan (US$12,080).