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Scientists Disagree on Civet Cats as SARS Source

Experts on SARS prevention in south China's Guangdong Province, one of the hardest hit regions in last year's deadly severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic, reaffirmed recently that civet cats are the main carriers and one of the major animal hosts of the coronavirus that causes SARS.

"Research proves that the civet cat is the primary animal source of the human SARS virus, with the ability to spread the virus," a Guangdong SARS prevention research group said in a statement Monday.

"So far, the civet cat is the most easily infected wild animal. . . . However, there is not enough evidence to say the civet cat is the only source of the human SARS virus."

But scientists remain divided on which animal is the primary host of the deadly virus.

"At present, civet cats cannot be determined to be the main carriers of the SARS virus," said Zhuang Hui, a researcher at Peking University and an academician of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, who attended the meeting where Guangdong scientists declared their findings.

Medical researchers in Guangdong's neighboring province of Hunan echoed Zhuang's view on Tuesday, saying that a study by Hunan's disease prevention and control center in collaboration with its central government counterpart found that civet cats are not the primary source of the virus.

Thousands of civet cats were culled in Guangdong in January this year for fear they could carry a form of the virus capable of jumping to humans.

"The breeding and raising of civet cats is not banned in the country and we have no plan to draft any prohibition," said an official with the Animal and Plants Administration Department of the State Administration of Forestry.

In a document on the raising and breeding of wildlife released by the administration on August 15 this year, the civet cat is identified as a "tradable wildlife animal that can be bred and raised with mature techniques."

"We won't make any amendments to the document for the time being and we'll continue to work with health departments on the issue of civet cats," said the official.

The animal and plant quarantine departments of Beijing, another city hit hard during last year's epidemic, also said they won't limit the raising and sale of civet cats.

The infectious disease prevention and veterinary health departments of the city made similar statements.

However, authorities in Guangdong Province, whose residents have a tradition of consuming wildlife, have ruled out the trade in civet cats in the province within this year.

"Each province has its own situation, and the document of the State Forestry Administration doesn't sufficiently consider the situation for the consumption of the animal in Guangdong. We have not decided weather to retain the ban next year," said an official with the province's wildlife protection office.

The highly infectious disease claimed about 800 lives across the globe last year.

(China.org.cn by Chen Chao, October 14, 2004)

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