The Origin of SARS Epidemics Found in Civet Cat Meat Consumption in Southern China

In rural China the animal is still consumed

The severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) is provoked by a coronavirus and emerged in southern Chinese province of Guangdong (Canton) in November 2002, spreading globally till stopped in July 2003, after having infected 8,096 people and killed 774. Most victims were from China, Canada, Taiwan, Singapore and Vietnam. The epidemic was stopped by international efforts, including quarantines on victims, health checks on travelers and distributions of facemasks.

A team of researchers from China and Hong Kong has found a genetic link between SARS in civet cats and humans, thus the disease seems to have been transmitted across species. "Our research has shown that the SARS coronavirus found in human victims is the same as the SARS coronavirus found in civet cats," said Wang Ming, from Guangzhou Centre for Disease Control and Prevention.

The World Health Organization (WHO) asked for caution in making a definitive link to the origin of SARS virus in civet cats. "What it (the research) shows is that the SARS coronavirus has been found in some civet cats, but we don't know how many civet cats, or whether it can be transmitted to humans," said WHO's China spokeswoman, Joanna Brent.

That evidence prompted Guangdong authorities to cull thousands of civet cats and other wild animals in January 2004 and permanently ban their trade and human consumption. The researchers found that human and cat viruses had the same genetic profile after testing six SARS-carrying civet cats from a restaurant in early 2004, where a female employed had been found infected with SARS virus. WHO experts also discovered evidence of the virus in cages in a restaurant where a SARS patient ate civet meat. "This discovery proves that civet cats are capable of spreading the SARS virus to human beings," said Wang.

The virus quickly developed the capacity to pass from human to human. Civet cats had been a prime suspect of the origin of the human form of the virus, but without firm proofs, other animals, too, have been suspected, for example bats. Civet cats, even if it looks for some like a raccoon, are in fact related to the mongooses and, by far, to real cats (but it's not a feline).

Sadly, Chinese people have a taste for a large array of wild animals, fact that threatens a lot the biodiversity but also exposes people to zoonoses (disease transmitted from animals to humans), and the civet cat is considered a delicacy in Southern China. In fact, in rural China, the animals are still being sold in markets.

HIV also spread to humans through human consumption of the meat of wild animals (chimpanzee and gorilla) in Central Africa.

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