China scientists say SARS-civet cat link proved

BEIJING (Reuters) - A joint China-Hong Kong research team says it has found a genetic link between SARS in civet cats and humans, bearing out claims that the disease had jumped across species, state media said on Thursday.

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Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome emerged in southern China in 2002, swept through the province of Guangdong and spread globally in 2003, infecting 8,000 people and killing 800.

Hong Kong scientists have previously said the SARS virus jumped from civet cat, a delicacy in southern China, to humans and quickly developed the ability to pass from person to person.

World Health Organization experts also found evidence of the virus in cages in a restaurant where a patient served up civet dishes.

That evidence was enough for Guangdong authorities to cull thousands of civet cats in January 2004 and permanently ban their sale and consumption.

But the raccoon-like animals, unrelated to cats, are still being sold in markets around the provincial capital, Guangzhou.

The research project, jointly conducted by the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, the Guangzhou Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, and Hong Kong University, was believed to be the first to find a genetic basis for how SARS spread, the China Daily said on Thursday.

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“Our research has shown that the SARS coronavirus found in human victims is the same as the SARS coronavirus found in civet cats,” the paper quoted Wang Ming, an official from the Guangzhou Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, as saying.

Scientists discovered the virus had the same genetic profile after running tests on six SARS-carrying civet cats taken from a restaurant in early 2004, where a female worker had been diagnosed with the illness, the China Daily said.

“This discovery proves that civet cats are capable of spreading the SARS virus to human beings,” Wang was quoted as saying.

The announcement came as police officials in Guangzhou announced a city-wide campaign to fight the illegal sale of wild animals, particularly civet cats, the paper said.