An international team of experts has recommended that China strengthen regulations on farming, trade, and the consumption of wildlife, conduct more serologic monitoring of severe acute respiratory syndrome viruses in humans and animals, and continue studies on human SARS cases to prevent future outbreaks.
The team, comprising experts from the Chinese government, the World Health Organization, and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization who have been working to better understand the disease and identify its origins, made the announcement Aug. 21.
"The fight against SARS is not over," said Dr. Pierre Formenty, a WHO zoonotic disease specialist and joint leader of the team, in a statement. "Finding (the disease's) origin will most likely take years. Right now, the need for information is of such urgency that even limited information will be helpful in taking the right control measures. Because SARS is a global threat, international collaboration is essential if we are to detect and contain any new outbreaks."
The recommendations were made just two weeks prior to the publication of a Chinese study that indicates the disease passed from animals to humans. The article was published in Science magazine Sept. 4 and is available online at www.sciencexpress.org.
The study, which made headlines this past spring, found that several species of wild animals—including the palm civet and raccoon dog—at a Chinese market harbored a virus almost identical to the virus that causes SARS. Though the study doesn't identify the species that originally transmitted the virus to humans, it provides DNA evidence that the disease passed from animals to humans, and not vice versa.
No farm animal links found
As the search for the animal source of the SARS virus continues, FAO officials point out there is no evidence to implicate farm animals in spreading the disease, contrary to some reports in the news media.
"To date, there is no evidence that farm species have been infected with the SARS coronavirus found in humans," according to a statement from the FAO.
More than 600 farm animals, including chickens, ducks, pigs, and rabbits, have been tested or had samples collected from them by Canadian and Chinese researchers and no evidence of SARS virus infection has been found, according to the FAO.
"Based on preliminary laboratory testing, (several) animal species (are) under investigation as a possible source for the virus, including the palm civet, raccoon dog, a species of fruit bat, and one species of snake," said Dr. Laurie Gleeson, a senior Australian veterinarian and a member of the FAO/WHO team.