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Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Where the SARS Virus Hides - New York Times

Where the SARS Virus Hides - New York TimesOctober 5, 2005
Where the SARS Virus Hides

Scientists appear to have found the source of the mysterious SARS epidemic, which emerged from China in late 2002, killed almost 800 people around the world, caused large economic losses in Asia and Canada and died out in late 2003, thanks in part to strict quarantines. Two scientific teams have identified Chinese horseshoe bats as the likely reservoir for the virus. Although the case is not ironclad, the knowledge that large numbers of bats harbor the virus should help officials prevent and control future outbreaks in humans.

It was an immense relief in 2003 that SARS, or sudden acute respiratory syndrome, never became the global pandemic that some experts had feared. The United States, for example, was barely touched. But scientists remained nervous that they did not know where the virus was hiding or whether it might jump out again to infect humans.

An early finding that the virus had infected palm civets sold in the live animal markets of southern China led to a vigorous culling of them to prevent further outbreaks. But that proved a dead end when later studies found no widespread infection in either wild or farmed civets.

If civets transmitted the SARS virus to humans, they most likely picked it up from infected bats, which are sold in the live markets in close proximity to other animals, mostly for food or use in traditional medicines. The viruses found in bats by the two research teams differ somewhat from each other and from the SARS virus that infected humans, but all these viruses are related closely enough to suggest that bats were the original reservoir.

The findings make it important for Chinese health authorities to minimize contacts between bats and humans or farmed civets. They also need to monitor the live markets to eliminate infected animals. Meanwhile, the researchers will be conducting more studies that may shed light on how likely it is that the virus will re-emerge from animal hosts to strike down more people.

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