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HEALTH REPORT - SARS in Animals - 2003-06-05

Broadcast: June 4, 2003

This is the VOA Special English Health Report.

Research from China has shown that some animals eaten as food can carry the SARS virus. SARS is Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.

Researchers at the University of Hong Kong and the Center for Disease Control in the city of Shenzhen made the discovery. They worked together to test the idea that animals could carry the virus that causes the deadly lung disease.

They bought eight different kinds of animals at a live animal market in the southern province of Guangdong. In the laboratory, the scientists tested the animals for evidence of the virus.

They found the SARS virus in the one raccoon dog they tested. They also found the virus in all six of the small animals known as masked palm civets that they tested. Civets are a popular food in southern China during winter. The virus was in the solid waste of all the civets, and in the sputum of four of the six. Sputum is a liquid substance from the mouth. In addition, the scientists found signs of the virus in the blood of a third kind of small animal, a badger.

The scientists mapped the genes of the viruses taken from two of the civets. They found the viruses to be ninety-nine percent the same as those taken from people with SARS. The only difference was that the animal SARS virus has twenty-nine more amino acids.

Professor Yuen Kwok Yung at Hong Kong University says it is unlikely that people could get the disease if they eat animals that are cooked well. Professor Yuen says activities such as raising, killing and handling infected animals are more likely to spread the virus from animals to people.

There is a theory that the virus jumped from animals to people in Guangdong last November. Research from Guangdong shows that more than thirty percent of the people infected with SARS there last year worked in food preparation.

However, the new study does not show if wild animals naturally carry the SARS virus. The scientists say more research is needed to discover how the animals they purchased from the market became infected.

They say it is possible that the animals ate other creatures that were infected with the virus. Or they could have become infected from each other. Scientists say it is also possible that the animals became infected from humans.

This VOA Special English Health Report was written by Nancy Steinbach.