Brussels, 30 Oct 2003
A new study suggests that the pool of animals capable of harbouring the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) virus is larger than was first thought.
Research teams from the Netherlands and Hong Kong have found that domestic cats and ferrets can be infected with the virus. This raises the concern that SARS may be being carried by a range of wild or domestic animals, and could easily jump to humans again.
Many researchers fear that the wider the pool of potential SARS carriers, the more difficult it will prove to track the source of, and thus contain, any future outbreak of the disease. 'It could be much, much harder than we thought,' warned Dick Thompson of the World Health Organisation (WHO).
This latest research also added masked palm civets, racoon dogs and ferret badgers to the list of animals capable of carrying the virus.
The results of the study did offer some positive news, however. Scientists hope that ferrets will prove more effective for testing drugs and vaccines than the monkeys previously used, as they mimic the symptoms of the human lung disease that SARS causes much more closely.
Further research priorities were identified during the first meeting of the WHO's SARS scientific research advisory committee in Geneva on 21 October. A 'gold standard' diagnostic test for the disease and air passenger flow assessments to determine which cities are most vulnerable to international spread were both highlighted as priority areas for action.